Colour-coded sentences

coloured-sentencesIn his book Pale Blue Dot (1994) the late Carl Sagan wrote about the famous 1990 photograph taken from Voyager 1, showing the earth as a tiny speck of colour in a square of black. As part of something I’ve been working on, I colour-coded one of my favourite passages from this book according to its parts of speech so I could see them more clearly. I thought it looked pretty so I’ve posted it below. The results are surprising. Style guides often tell you that the verbs should drive a sentence and you should avoid overly nouny sentences. But that last 80 word sentence of Sagan’s (which the style guides would also say is far too long) is full of nouns, and has only one verb – and it reads like a dream.

Key: Nouns Verbs Articles Adverbs Adjectives Prepositions Conjunctions

From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived thereon a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The most comforting speech in the world


Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was a Trappist monk who spent almost all his adult life in the Abbey of Gethsemani in the Appalachian region of northern Kentucky. For the last part of it he lived alone in a hermitage, a cinder-block cabin in the nearby woods. In his essay ‘Rain and the Rhinoceros,’ he writes beautifully about rain, both in cities and in his own woodland:

‘Meanwhile the obsessed citizens plunge through the rain bearing the load of their obsessions, slightly more vulnerable than before, but still only barely aware of external realities. They do not see that the streets shine beautifully, that they themselves are walking on stars and water, that they are running in skies to catch a bus or a taxi, to shelter somewhere in the press of irritated humans … But they must know that there is wetness abroad. Naturally no one can believe the things they say about the rain. It all implies one basic lie: only the city is real. That weather, not being planned, not being fabricated, is an impertinence, a wen on the visage of progress.

Of course the festival of rain cannot be stopped, even in the city. The woman from the delicatessen scampers along the sidewalk with a newspaper over her head. The streets, suddenly washed, become transparent and alive, and the noise of traffic becomes a plashing of fountains. One would think that the urban man in a rainstorm would have to take account of nature in its wetness and freshness, its baptism and its renewal …

The rain that I am in is not like the rain of cities. It fills the woods with an immense and confused sound. It covers the flat roof of the cabin and its porch with insistent and controlled rhythms. And I listen, because it reminds me again and again that the whole world turns by rhythms I have not yet learned to recognize, rhythms that are not those of the engineer …

The rain surrounded the whole cabin with its enormous virginal myth, a whole world of meaning, of secrecy, of silence, of rumor. Think of it: all that speech pouring down, selling nothing, judging nobody, drenching the thick mulch of dead leaves, soaking the trees, filling the gullies and crannies of the wood with water, washing out the places where men have stripped the hillside! What a thing it is to sit absolutely alone, in the forest, at night, cherished by this wonderful, unintelligible, perfectly innocent speech, the most comforting speech in the world, the talk that rain makes by itself all over the ridges, and the talk of the watercourses everywhere in the hollows!’

Effete betrayers of humanity

From Mark Forsyth’s book The Elements of Eloquence, here is a list from 1953 of words approved by the East German government for describing the British:

‘Paralytic sycophants, effete betrayers of humanity, carrion-eating servile imitators, arch-cowards and collaborators, gang of woman-murderers, degenerate rabble, parasitic traditionalists, playboy soldiers, conceited dandies.’

And here comes Hurst

world cup

The World Cup final of 1966 had the biggest audience in British television history: more than 32 million. This is probably an underestimate, since the collective watching in public places and living rooms that occurs during big sports games does not register well in ratings systems. The figures were even more impressive because only one of the home nations was playing: many Scottish viewers did not watch, like the Man United striker Denis Law who took himself off to the golf course for the afternoon.

The 1966 World Cup had brought in new audiences for football, especially women. For the final, the gender gap among viewers had almost closed. Two men who were watching on their own were the novelists Malcolm Bradbury and David Lodge, neither of whom had a TV, and who saw the final in the flat of Lodge’s Birmingham University colleague Stuart Hall, who was away that weekend and lent them the keys to his flat. As one of the founders of British cultural studies, Hall obviously did have a television.

The 1966 World Cup was also the moment that televised football developed its own visual and verbal lexicon which made it ever more unlike the experience of watching on the terraces. It was when TV began to surround the match with commentary – half an hour of verbal overture beforehand and twenty minutes afterwards. Tyne Tees Television also pioneered low level cameras to show the players as other players saw them, in the thick of the action.

The BBC first used its new slow-motion ‘action replay’ in the opening match between England and Uruguay. They were waiting to use it for the first goal but none came, so towards the end they used it on a near miss. Everyone, including the commentator, was taken aback, and the BBC’s duty log was besieged with calls from confused viewers asking whether the match was live or recorded. ‘This sleight of hand with time – that’s how it seemed to me – added an entirely new dimension,’ wrote a critic in The Listener.

Halfway through the first period of extra time in the final, with England and West Germany tied at 2-2, the BBC made crucial use of its new technology. But even an action replay, and a camera positioned low down behind the goal, could not prove conclusively whether or not Geoff Hurst’s shot had crossed the line. The England right-back watching from the halfway line, George Cohen, later confessed that ‘the relatively infant TV technology wasn’t really conclusive but when all the emotions had drained away I had to concede that the most beautiful goal I have ever seen was also one of the most dubious’.

As Hurst’s final goal went in, Wolstenholme said: ‘And here comes Hurst! He’s got – some people are on the pitch. They think it’s all over – it is now! It’s four!’ These words did not resonate immediately with viewers, no doubt because they were drowned out by millions of living room cheers, which was probably just as well since they inconveniently drew attention to the fact that the goal should have been disallowed because there were spectators on the field. It was only when the whole game was repeated on BBC2 in August 1966 that their concision and neatness caught the public mood. As a piece of Wolstenholme commentary, it was atypical. He was best known for his clipped RAF tones and meaningful silences, for he believed that words should merely annotate what was on screen. Wolstenholme’s standard response when a player scored was ‘it’s a goal,’ a phrase so familiar to 1960s TV viewers that the Beatles, none of whom were football fans, sampled it on a loop for an alternative mix of the song ‘Glass Onion’, which later appeared on Anthology 3.

Over on ITV, only about four million viewers heard Hugh Johns’s more prosaic celebration of the winning goal: ‘Geoff Hurst goes forward. He might make it three. He has! He has! And that’s it, that’s it!’ But Johns’s voluble commentaries, delivered in a rich voice honed in theatre rep, coarsened by chain smoking and lubricated with Brain’s Bitter, became the default commentating style.

In his book 4-2, the film critic David Thomson recalls watching the World Cup Final at home and seeing Hurst’s final goal fly in: ‘I roar in the living-room in Isleworth in front of the black-and-white TV. Mathew [his son] cannot quite yet know the grace that has touched Geoff Hurst. So he cries in alarm. But I was crying first. His mother comes into the room and tells me not to scare him so.’

Of the end of the game, Thomson writes: ‘All over the land, people were going to the bathroom, walking out into the garden to breathe the air, dashing off to neglected shops before they closed. The collective kettle was being put on. Old balls were fetched out and kicked around in the noble knock-on of victory.’

The students pack and go

It’s our graduation ceremony next week. It’s reminded me of this great passage from Peter Davidson’s collection of essays, Distance and Memory. Davidson has written a couple of wonderful cultural histories-cum-lyric essays on the idea of north and on twilight. Until fairly recently he was a professor at the University of Aberdeen. This is what he writes, in an essay called ‘Summer’, about the high-camp of the graduation ceremony rituals there and everywhere:

‘The academic year moves to a graceful close, the students pack and go. Suddenly there are empty car parks and the high street of the Old Town is silent, but for the garden fountain opposite the crown spire of the chapel. Then, graduations, with the proper Scottish flaring of scarlet gowns against grey stone. It strikes me (as it has probably struck every Latin-literate academic in northern Europe one summer or another) that the point of the Gaudeamus Igitur, locally “the Gaudie”, which our students sing as we come in, is that it says two completely different things to two different audiences. To the students … it says things are good now, and the future uncertain:

Gaudeamus igitur.

Iuvenes dum sumus.

The suspended rhyme is held to the end of the verse: Nos habebit humus – the grave will get us.

To the professors coming in as they sing the last verse,

Vivat academia!

Vivant professors!

Vivat membrum quodlibet;

Vivant membra quaeliebet ;

Semper sint in flore

it turns year by year into a memento mori. It is the university that will stand and flourish, while, like all the generations of Principals, Humanists, Civilists, Mediciners, Regents, Magistrands, Tertians, Semis, Bajans and Sacrists, we ourselves will follow all those whose signatures are on the flyleaves of the books in the old library, to the grave. The young are singing truer than they know.’

Happy graduation day, everyone …

Some words click and others moan

‘We must remember how wide the word “Iowa” is. We must bear in mind how some words are closed at both ends like “top” or are as open as “easy” or as huffed as “hush.” Some words click and others moan. Some grumble. Listen to the way the word “sister” is put together. Can you feel the blow which chops off the end of “clock”?’ – William Gass

The letter is an act of faith


I liked Vivian Gornick on the difference between talking to someone on the phone and writing a letter:

‘When we talk we each cradle the receiver, stare unseeing into the emptiness of the rooms we occupy, and concentrate on the exchange … The telephone conversation is, by its very nature, reactive not reflective. Immediacy is its prime virtue. The immediacy delivers quick company, instant stimulation; the stimulation is cathartic; catharsis pushes back anxiety; into open space flows the kind of thought generated by electric return. The letter, written in absorbed solitude, is an act of faith; it assumes the presence of humanity; world and self are generated from within; loneliness is courted not feared. To write a letter is to be alone with my thoughts in the conjured presence of another person. I keep myself imaginative company. I occupy the empty room. I alone infuse the silence.’

(From Approaching Eye Level (1997), pp. 152, 162)

The pleasure of a graceful sentence

Caring about how the words in a sentence slot together can feel like a lonely business. There is an early scene in the film Broadcast News, in which the young Aaron Altman (who grows up to be a brilliant but spiky news reporter, played by Albert Brooks) is being beaten up in high school by the class bullies. As he struggles to his feet, he comes up with what he believes will be a devastating putdown: ‘You’ll never make more than nineteen thousand dollars a year!’ They grab him by the hair and carry on punching him. He tries again, this time with a mouth full of blood: ‘Okay, take this: You’ll never leave South Boston and I’m going to see the whole damn world!’ As they twist his arm round his back and scrape his face against the concrete, he delivers his coup de grace: ‘You’ll never know the pleasure of writing a graceful sentence!’ They punch him in the stomach, he sinks to the ground and they walk away.

Primo Levi, Mac bore

I’m looking forward to reading Matthew Kirschenbaum’s Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing (good title), which comes out at the end of May. I wonder if Primo Levi will be in it. In 1984 he wrote to an English friend that he was ‘in danger of becoming a Mac bore’. When she described his Apple as merely a ‘clever new typewriter’, he replied: ‘It’s a lot more than that! It’s a memory prosthesis, an archive, an unprotesting secretary, a new game each day, as well as a designer, as you will see from the enclosed centipede picture.’ (From Ian Thomson’s biography of Levi, p. 456)

Life and hope in cerebral form

This is a slightly longer version of an article I published in the Times Higher last month about curiosity:

Our ancient myths and religions are full of cautionary tales about curiosity. Pandora, Daedalus, Psyche, Orpheus, Adam and Eve, Lot’s wife – all succumbed to a curiosity that turned out to be calamitous. St Augustine, castigating himself for being waylaid from prayer by the tantalising sight of a dog running after a rabbit or a lizard catching flies, condemned curiosity as a “vain inquisitiveness” and a “diseased craving”. Even during the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, when curiosity was finally transformed from a vice to a virtue, its advocates admitted it could be a voracious beast if left unchecked and not channelled into worthy ends. Thomas Hobbes called it “a Lust of the mind” that “exceedeth the short vehemence of any carnall Pleasure”.

The modern university has inherited this ambivalence about curiosity. We recognise that all intellectual work begins with it. But we still retain St Augustine’s misgivings about directionless curiosity. No longer a sinful distraction from religious devotion, it has become a sinful distraction from the delivery of measurable outputs and impacts. Higher education ministers and university managers tend to see knowledge in terms of targets they have set rather than potential they cannot yet quantify. The non-linear logic of curiosity confuses them.

Even as an argument for relating academic knowledge to economic productivity, this makes little sense. As Ian Leslie argues in his book Curious (2014), humans owe their success as a species to the fact that they evolved large brains with huge memories, which meant that, rather than finding things out when they needed to, like other animals, they could amass knowledge that might be helpful later on. In a complex, fast-evolving world, it is even harder to know in advance what kinds of learning will be useful. So we need more than ever to be willing to undertake speculative intellectual ventures, to fasten on the unusual and serendipitous and see where it takes us. The priceless value of free-ranging curiosity explains the paradox, as Leslie puts it, that “the more we chase the goal of efficient education, the further it recedes”.

The strongest disincentive to curiosity is the fear of failure. If I were a vice-chancellor, I would argue that one of my university’s roles would be to remove this disincentive and to give people the permission to be curious, and I would promote this as an effective medical intervention into the mental health of my students, staff and the public. Depression is, among other things, a blocking off of our natural curiosity about the world, a turning inward against life, interest and meaning. No anti-depressant has ever worked as well for me as the healing power of rekindled curiosity. “Curious” derives from the Latin cura, from which we also get both “cure” and “care”. That is what curiosity is: a curative for self-absorption and despair, and a way of caring about the world and laying down roots within it. As Alberto Manguel writes in his recent book on the subject, curiosity is “a means of declaring our allegiance to the human fold”.

The great disappointment of the internet is that it has not yet fulfilled its potential to encourage this kind of sustained, immersive curiosity. One of our tasks as lecturers is to persuade the post-internet generation that intellectual life involves not the click of a mouse but hard thinking and blind alleys, and that the best way of finding something out might be to persevere beyond the purely instrumentalist search for information into the creative confusions of curiosity. The online world also tends to gravitate to extremes – either an echo chamber of likeminded souls retweeting and favouriting each other, or those below-the-line debates full of suffocating earnestness and pointless anger. Curiosity avoids such polarised certainties. It is intrinsically open-hearted and gentle, interested in relating to others but appreciative of their otherness. The best compliment you can pay someone is not to shower them with hyperbolic praise but simply to be curious about what they say and do. “Attention,” wrote the French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil, “is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”

Curiosity is life and hope in cerebral form. It exists in all animals, from the kitten with a ball of string to the monkey who will edge nervously towards a snake because its intense fear is still not as powerful as its curiosity. In The Act of Creation (1964), Arthur Koestler argued that this universal “exploratory drive” is not just intended to support biological needs like finding food or having sex but is a self-rewarding end in which “the motivation for learning is to learn”. Curiosity is a condition of all conscious life, but especially of human life. Edward O. Wilson, whose ground-breaking insights in sociobiology have emerged out of a curiosity-driven, career-long study of the lowly ant, uses the term “biophilia” to describe this innate human interest in other forms of life. It is our life-loving curiosity that allows us, he writes, “to spend a lifetime in a magellanic voyage around the trunk of a single tree”.

Curiosity is rather like a bit of Japanese knotweed which can grow, wildly and ungovernably, in the most inhospitable circumstances. If scientific curiosity could flourish in the seventeenth century, when Puritan preachers like Thomas Brooks were busily condemning it as “the spiritual Adultery of the soul”, it can surely survive in today’s university, where people are still managing to carve out the time and space to take intellectual risks and be creatively diverted. It may feel as if the incurious satisficers, who only want data to be mongered and boxes to be ticked, are ruling over our benighted present. No matter. The future will belong to whom it has always belonged: the curious.