Friday, 16 May 2008

Interlude – The impossible question

Young men, starting out in life, often ask me “How can I become Geoffrye Chaucer?”

Since one does not wish to disappoint young men, it is a question replete with difficulty, and this is its great strength.

In my day, schooling was fundamentally a battle of wits. The great thing was to find the impossible question. Skilfully deployed this would bamboozle a teacher, confusing them long enough to make them forget to give you homework. Some teachers would fall for it every time. We loved them for their weakness, but, with the ruthlessness of the young, we gave them merry hell none the less.

A variant was to find an impossible answer to any question a teacher might ask. The aim – a similar delay until the bell rang. Soft teachers, like Mr White, would try to answer your question and get themselves tied in knots. Hard teachers, like Mr Gwynn, just shouted: “Cease your jabbering Murphy, and go to your next class.” It will be seen from this that while Mr White was putty in our hands, Mr Gwynn was a stranger to the milk of human kindness. It curdled as he hove into view. It was widely believed among the boys that he ate barbed wire, wore sandpaper next the skin and conducted black masses by the light of the full moon, but we never dared ask him if it was true. “Are you a double-headed axe murderer, Mr Gwynn?” was the sort of innocent enquiry which, had it been addressed to Mr White would have been taken as evidence of the spirit of enquiry that he wanted so much to encourage in the young mind before him. He would have delighted in trying to answer it. With Mr Gwynn it would just result in pain. At least six bouts of it.

Speaking of which…. My gas engineer (the guy who makes sure we are not about to be blown sky high by our central heating, although we may be by the gas bill) told me today that he had attended Rutlish school.

Now he is a splendid gas engineer. Quite the best the area has to offer. No-one can hold a candle to him. Not if they want to remain alive. He is efficient with a spanner, masterly with anything copper and a huge conversationalist. Within five minutes of arriving I knew more about his neighbour’s dog than any man alive including his neighbour. Or his dog. Conversation, for my gas engineer, is the staff of life and he leans on it fully and well. He reminds me of the sort of farmer, beloved of cartoonists, who stick their thumbs into their braces and lean against the wind to ask after your bunions, while the cows scatter in all directions behind his genial and unshaven smile.

Now this revelation that he had attended Rutlish school caught me by surprise. We used to thrash them regularly at rugby and cricket, so I was surprised that anyone would admit to going there, especially since their most famous alumnus was one John Major (one time Prime Minister of the UK). Not the sort of thing one would wish to boast about.

He told me a tale that began with the school uniform of the day – the boys wore boaters in the summer – and went on to reveal that he had been cruelly and unjustly punished over some minor transgression of the school rules. What made my eyes water was the punishment meted out. The boys (there were ten involved) were marched up onto the stage at morning assembly the next day and ‘given the slipper’ in front of the whole school. It was administered on the traditional gluteal area.

There will be those of you who will have no idea what that means, and leaving it unexplained will perhaps make you think it is something worse than it is, but suffice it to say that this ritual punishment involved pain and humiliation in equal measure. Actually, let my correct myself. It involved pain and humiliation in hugely unequal measure. For as my gas engineer told the tale, I could hear the traces of the humiliation experienced forty years earlier, still rise in his gorge.

But… to come back to the impossible question…

Our playground variations of these question and answer tricks were imaginative and played wonderfully with the language.

“What’s the difference between a duck?” we would ask each other.
“One of its legs is both the same,” we would correctly respond.

Flann O’Brien would have approved. It is a splendid bit of near sense combined with verbal surprise which still comes in handy in awkward social situations of which there are so many. I have had to deploy it several times, notably on finding myself at the front of a queue at the railway station, but without my change quite ready because I had been day-dreaming or trying to remember a fugitive quatrain, which is not the same thing at all. Asking the duck question through the grill, gives you time. They presume they have misheard and ask you to repeat what you said, by which time you have found a crumpled tenner in the depths of your pocket.

I would have thought that things had changed at school these days, but a teacher recently told me that this skill is fully alive in the new generation. He tells me of a fellow teacher who asked a pupil about her music coursework: “Jane, did you write the lyrics of your song or did someone else?” To which the girl replied: “I don’t know.” A splendidly impossible answer. But it was topped the next minute when the teacher felt she had to offer some reassurance to extract the facts: “It’s all right, Jane, it doesn’t really matter, but did you or didn’t you write the words?” To which the girl replied. “Yes.”

Check mate in two. One imagines the hard-pressed teacher holding on to the corridor walls until, gaining the safety of the staff room, a swift restorative could be administered.

Hearing this tale reawakened my faith in the young generation who have clearly got some good moves. In fact it has made me realise that everything we hear about them is a confidence trick of the highest order. They are supposed to be thick, illiterate, innumerate, moronic, ignorant, paralysed by computer games and stuffed with junk food. But they are playing us for fools. In fact they are bright, incredibly clever, funny and getting on for semi-literate by exam time.

And exam time is upon us. Upon them, actually. And among them is my son. I wish him and all his schoolmates the best of luck. If cornered by a difficult question I advise them to throw up their hands and ask the invigilator “Is it half past shovel-spade sir?”

It will give them time.

© Roger Murphy 2008

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Writing 3: purée of bat guano

Time was, writers could assume things. We assumed readers knew enough basic English, Mathematics, History and Science to get by. We assumed they were familiar with the central, basic literature of the culture. They would catch all the references we made, so we felt free to make them. After all, we were all from broadly the same educational background. They knew what we knew.

We cannot write like that any more. Not if we want to communicate. We cannot make the assumptions of old.

This is no tedious complaint about falling standards of education, or changes in society, it’s too late for that. As a writer, I just want to be sure that, given the standards of education, I can still be in touch with the audience. And I can’t. If I want to communicate, I have to change my references, or lose them altogether.

For example, here in the UK we can still assume, just, that most people will know about The Second World War and the Holocaust, but I think it may be different in the US. If you are writing for a worldwide audience, which increasingly we are, you have to explain.

Increasingly, people these days learn about history from Dan Brown novels and video games, but only if there is no sport on TV. And what they read and see is coloured by their own experience, not the experience of previous generations.

No-one spends time chatting with their grandma over the tea and biscuits any more. No-one ever sifts through the fading monochromes with Uncle Jim. The conversational cup has been replaced with children’s television or a video game of gut-spewing violence. Let’s face it, you don’t get your drug-money together by shooting the breeze with Grandad. Life is a bitch, and you’d better get used to it.

Harlan Ellison, the American writer, tells his experience of addressing a hall of university students in New York.

“In the course of talking I mentioned Dachau,” he says. “I can’t even remember what the context was, but I mentioned it. After a moment a woman about 21 years old, raises her hand.”

“I can usually catch most of your references,” she says, “but who was that you were talking about before?” she asked.

“Sorry? Who?” asked Ellison unable to remember what he had said.

“Dachau.” she said.

“Dachau?’ he asked, raising his eyebrows.

“ Yea,” she said. “Who is that?”

Ellison, telling this story, gives his own commentary.

“What this points to,” he says, “is a rampant ignorance. A failure to maintain any ties with our past, a dissolution of our roots, a disregard for tradition.”

Later on he says that he finds that students are increasingly ignorant. “Not only don’t they know a damn thing, they are arrogant about not knowing a damn thing. Their brains have been turned to purée of bat guano by eating McDonald’s toadburgers and watching too much television.”

Of course, Ellison is known for expressing himself colourfully, and thank heavens he does. The truths he points to, however, are clear enough: we have failed to maintain any ties with our past.

But which of us has seriously struggled with this and changed our writing style to suit our changing audience? Which of us has taken to never mentioning things our audience will probably have never heard of (most stuff) – thus pandering to their ignorance – but maintaining lines of communication? This is what is required of us more and more.

The tail-spin destination of all this is to crash on the lowest common denominator of writing, the cardboard style (see Writing 2: cut out cardboard). The next is achieving a smooth, even texture with no variety of tone, syntax or meaning at all – the writing equivalent of babyfood, only less nutritious. Wet cardboard if you like, pulped for easy digestion.

Some of you, though, will refuse to write cardboard out of respect for your reader, whom you suspect may yet be capable of thought, or may wish to learn. Some of you will refuse to serve up pap to adults. Some of you will chose a risky written life full of variety and spice, hoping that people will enjoy the ride, risking that they won’t, and settling in for the long refusal to compromise with mediocrity.

You will become like an old war veteran who refuses to move out of his crumbling terrace house thereby causing a huge problem for developers who wish to put up newer, brighter, better designed and more efficient slums.

One or two of you will know, like that veteran, that the only battles worth fighting are the ones that are lost already. You alone can comfort yourselves with the thought that although you may be increasingly distanced from your reader, and the bulldozers are revving at your gate, you will never be purée of bat guano. You would die first.

© Roger Murphy 2008

Writing 2: cut out cardboard

Variety, the cliché runs, is the spice of life. We recognise this truth in all aspects of our lives – even marriage, where it should be interpreted with care. But there is one area where we limit its truth and seem happy to provide an unvarying and unspiced diet – writing.

I have already written (see Writing 1: the challenge to management) about a recent journey into the heart of darkness – the reading of fifteen articles from senior management – a cross-section of British industry. I have complained about management’s failures in this, but I am worried about the writing.

There was no spice, no variety in the writing of these pieces. After reading them, I felt as if I had just eaten a huge meal of fifteen courses, each of the finest cardboard. Indigestible is the word I am searching for.

A big problem is style. And by style, I am including the approach to an article – the chosen form of the piece as well as the tone of voice.

More than anything, indigestion was caused by an identical approach being taken to each piece – a few hundred words from the desk of the top geezer. No interviews. No question and answer. No oblique angles. No background. Often, barely an introduction. Just straight in to the dull stuff. A suit speaks.

Good writers consider the reader first. The reader needs variety. But these days, when so many are cowed with fear, variety implies the out of the ordinary, which carries with it the risk of rejection. I am sure that writers do sometimes come up with ideas for approaching the same old articles in a new way, but they have been knocked-back so often that they have given up trying. They have settled for the safe, for the bland, for cardboard.

Editors should push for variety from their writers. A piece that is correct but dull is not good enough. They should insist upon enjoying it. But so much damage has been done, that most writers have one style now, because they only ever need one. Nothing more is required of them.

Reading those articles was like listening to a Mozart Opera where all the notes had been changed to one note, all the colour coalesced into one hue. Why do we imagine that we can remove all variety from writing and escape identical results?

That’s what was missing from these publications, lifeblood. All the variety that writing should bring with it, all the music, was lost. It was a dispiriting realisation. I had been reading bloodless cardboard.

© Roger Murphy 2008

Writing 1: the challenge to management

I was angry at first, then depressed, but now I’m back in the fight.

I had to research various company journals this week, looking for interviews with senior managers. I wanted to see what others had done, hoping for some inspiration. After an hour, I was angry. What marked these pieces out for special concern was their lack of original thinking, or, indeed, any discernible thinking at all. And woe to the cynic who says I was looking for originality in the wrong place.

The articles I read were of the most profound dullness – paragraph after paragraph of platitudes, comparative figures and pious hopes. I wondered how they had come to be published. The answer was that these pieces contained the thoughts of the Gods. They had spoken from on high. So they must be published. That, or something like it, seemed to be the reasoning.

Responsibility for these abominations lies in two places. Firstly it lies with editors. The question that should precede the commissioning or publishing of each and every article is: is this good enough to publish? Will this interest people? If the answer is ‘no’, it should not see the light of day.

This is true even of words written by the Chief Executive himself. He has no right to bore his readers, and not only because they may be his workforce. As a communicator it is your job to warn him that he may lose people, and urge him to say something that will be meaningful. You may be the only person in the organisation who can do this knowledgeably, and can back it up with cogent argument.

If you are afraid to do this you are in the wrong job. Editors are hired, inter alia, to warn, to see the problems and solve them. Just be ready to defend your point of view.

Articles like the offending pieces I read, are often the result of lazy briefings and result in what most in-house magazines and intranets are full of – words that no-one wants to read. “It’s time we did that article on the figures, I’ll send an e-mail to the finance man and tell him we need 1000 words.” Fundamentally this is an insult to the readers.

But though editorial laziness can be to blame, I reserve my chief anger for managers. That is, those managers who have still to learn that emitting sound is not the same as talking sense. The challenge for management is to say things that are worth listening to. Remember that no matter how good at alchemy your communications team is, they cannot produce gold from dross.

I have seen managements eventually grow resentful of their communications teams. They see them as a constant reminder of a higher purpose, and a constant reminder that that purpose has not yet been achieved. They are the triumphator’s slave. He who, riding with the victorious commander on a golden chariot through Rome to the adulation of the city, reminds him that he is only mortal.

It must get a bit irksome. But good communicators will be pushing management all the time.

But what do you think?

When I had finished researching these articles, the source of my complaint, I asked myself: When was the last piece of really imaginative reporting I had read in a company publication? When was the last piece of internal or external communication, read in a house journal or website, that had set me alight, or had changed my perception. When was the last time a Finance Director’s article stopped me in my tracks with its perspicacity or gave me furiously to think. When last was my intellect thoroughly engaged by reading an interview with the Chief Executive?

Is this too much to ask? Too much to hope for?

If your answer is no, and you are a communicator, please refer this article to your management and ask for their opinion.

If your answer is yes and you are a manager, then please consider your position, for these are the things that you are meant to be asking your communicators to help you do.

Are you?

© Roger Murphy 2008