11 November 2014

Pinned Down

by Thomas Penrose Marks
Published by William Kimber, 1977

Today, first-hand memories of the First World War lie buried beneath the inevitably changing landscape of history. Over the years they have regularly been turned up like the bullet-ridden helmets and rusting gun parts that snag on the gardeners’ forks and builders’ diggers of northern France. We have quite a collection of them now.
Each letter and photograph and diary is a jolt back to a place we can all too easily imagine but can never truly explain. How the hell did it happen? No amount of watching the dominoes fall from Sarajevo to Belgium will ever explain it; no evocation of innate human evil or analysis of fracturing empires will ever really tell us why so many millions had to experience the day-to-day horrors that they faced over those four bloody years.
Thomas Penrose Marks, who signed up as a Cornish lad not long out of school, took his memories with him when he emigrated to South Africa in 1920. Sixteen years later, after meeting a German pastor who had been in the opposite trenches at Arras, he wrote them down and stuck the manuscript in a drawer. Their tale told to a sheaf of paper, he let them lie for forty years. Then, on the instigation of his wife, they were made up into a book and published by the military history publishers William Kimber in 1977.
Marks, known to friends and family as ‘Pen’, has an uncomplicated, immediate style that consists of short, efficient sentences swinging at random between present and past tense. It's like a diary written at a distance, the pages filled from a deeper recall than the daily totting up of an efficiently maintained journal. The nightmare of the war, though it must have been ever-present to him, picks up debris from the writer's new life as it is recorded. A barrage, for example, is compared to a lion roaring defiance across the grassland which might be a natural comparison to make from a desk in South Africa, but which is unlikely to have occurred to the fresh-faced 19-year old from Cornwall who was actually cowering under the bursting shells.

But the immediacy survives the distance, and reading Pen’s book is an immersive experience. We sink with Nip and the scalding burden of soup he carries in a huge canister strapped to his back as he takes a wrong turn off the duckboards and disappears into a crater full of slurry. We wince at our own good fortune as a group working its way back along the trenches to take a respite from the front line are obliterated by a shell that strikes where we ourselves have just walked. We wonder at our own sense of curiosity about the wood full of the corpses of middle-aged German soldiers, blue-black in colour and probably gassed. With Pen, we are in a world which has been reversed. Peace for most of us is a life where we know death is ever present, but silent until it speaks and we are forced to make terms with it. In this war, death is the normality; it is centre stage and everywhere you look. When Pen and his comrades sit down among the corpses in the wood to eat their rations and idly pelt the dead with their crusts and laugh, it is they who are the ghosts.

From his book, it is clear that Pen had no hatred for his enemy. He, like them, was pinned down by time and circumstance as much as by shrapnel and bullets. It was as if all the participants had somehow agreed to the dance, or at least succumbed to its inevitability. The only thing left to fall back on was their humanity with all its conflicting instincts for survival and kindness. 

One day they embark on an attack where orders are given that there can be no prisoners taken as the unit does not have the resources to look after them. In forcing the Germans back, they come across a dugout where frightened young men are hiding. They throw a grenade in. Voices plead with them in German. One comes out and he is shot. Others follow one by one. Each of them is killed. There are 36 of them in all, all killed. All the soldiers know that, if the scene were reversed as it often had been, the same thing would have happened. On another occasion, British heavy artillery pounds the German line relentlessly. When the bombardment is over, German troops come staggering through the curtain of gun smoke. "They have passed through hell...We are sorry for them, and we stop them and give them cigarettes. They look grateful, but many of them cannot say a word...Their eyes are protruding. Their expressions are of horror and terror...Some of them cannot light their cigarettes, and so we strike the matches and hold the cigarettes steady."

Despite the individual hands that pulled the triggers and loaded the mortars, the real brutality at the Front lay in the political machinery that had forced so many sons and brothers and fathers from all parts of the world into a blood-soaked bear pit. Pen's book is studded with asides about how the soldiers feel about this. In their idle moments they lament the fact that they "are caught like rats in a trap". They wonder about those who "pull the strings behind the scenes" and conclude, rightly, that someone somewhere is making out handsomely from their suffering. They know too that the men beyond No-Man's Land feel the same. By the simple, and clearly unquenchable gift of human empathy it is obvious to Pen and his comrades that those beyond the barbed wire are no more keen on lice and bursting shells than they are. "We know from experience that they are no different from ourselves."

At one point, Pen proposes the kind of solution that you would hope and expect from a young person with a world to grow up in: "If the top six politicians from all the combatant countries were to spend twenty-four hours in the trenches, the war would end the following day." If only that were true.

20 September 2014

Word Power

Grenville Kleiser (9th edition 1917)

This is a very brown book. It has neat brown boards with a close-grained cloth texture, the top edges of the pages have traces of what may have been a brown colouring which, though faded, remains brown and the other edges have aged to a brown hue with tiny spots of brown foxing. It feels dull and functional, which is fine, because it is a reference book.

First thing on a random opening. A step was at her heels; A stifling sensation of pain and suspense; A stinging wind swept the woods; A strange compound of contradictory elements; A stream of easy talk; A strong convulsion shook the vague and indefinite form; A strong susceptibility to the ridiculous...

The front bits. The title page gives a block of further explanation beyond the fact that the book contains several thousand useful phrases. This explanation is all set in capitals and elaborates on the title by mentioning the STRIKING SIMILES and ORATORICAL TERMS that can be found within. Grenville Kleiser's qualifications to offer his services are listed extensively below his name. He's a former instructor in public speaking at Yale Divinity School and the author of an impressive stream of self-improvement books, including How to Develop Power and Personality in Speaking and How to Argue and Win.

Leafthrough. Words, words, words - it's just page after page of words. A bit like any other book, then. But these words don't connect to paint a big picture or tell a story, or explain a natural phenomenon or scientific experiment. They are just words arranged in phrases apropos of nothing. It seems to be a hybrid of dictionary and thesaurus; a slightly mad well of phrases and thoughts to dip into whenever inspiration dries up. 
Looking into it.  Grenville Kleiser was the Charles Atlas of the spoken word. Going by the adverts for his correspondence courses, he could turn you from a two-cliché apology into Demosthenes in full flow. He could put muscle into your mutterings, give you the power to kick words in people’s faces. For just 15 minutes a day of your time, you could become ‘the man among men’ (women need not apply). Kleiser offers a dream whereby the stumbling and dull can become articulate and eloquent. There is a power in well-chosen words used in harmonious groupings that has seen great statesmen face out impossible crises, company directors take their shareholders with them into bold enterprises and hosts hold dinner guests enthralled. The gift of the gab is not God-given, it has to be developed and honed like abs and pecs.

It must be true that great speakers and speech writers practise and perfect their craft in different ways. But I have always thought (perhaps naively) that the real power of a great speech is drawn from the orator's own resources; a genuine belief in their subject and an innate lexical toolbox with which to fashion their message. Which is why I find this book so odd.

It is intended as a weapon against cliche and tired usage, and there are certainly some resonant, flowery and frankly weird phrases here. Whether the author came up with them from his own troubled imagination or not, however, these phrases are destined to become secondhand as soon as they are used by his readers. As it happens, I suspect Kleiser found them by the simple method of ransacking his bookshelf. What's left are bits of sentences, fragments of dialogue and random thoughts that are presented with the sinews of their original contexts dangling from them. Where, for example, did the simile "Like some unshriven churchyard thing" come from, and under what possible circumstances would you use it? Or how about the prepositional phrase "snubbed into quiescence", or the 'impressive phrase' "clumsy, crawling, snobbish and comfort-loving"?

Kleiser does warn us that "we should not...study 'sparkling words and sonorous phrases' with the aim of introducing them consciously into our speech". But his instructions on how to use the book include copying the phrases out in your own handwriting and using a pencil to underscore those that "make a special appeal to you". He also suggests an exercise: "pronounce a phrase aloud and then fit it into a complete sentence of your own making".

15,000 Useful Phrases proposes that stocking up with an arsenal of pre-prepared power phrases will give even the most inarticulate the chance to outspeak his opponent. Like Charles Atlas, Kleiser plays to people's self-perception as to their own weaknesses in areas where all around them appear to shine. There is always someone fitter, more fulfilled or cleverer than any one of us and there will always be people who can sell us a way to get even.

The book has been popular enough to run to several editions over the decades. It is still in print and there is even a Youtube version in which the whole thing is read out word-by-word, phrase-by-phrase: "...involuntary yearnings, involuted sentences, involved pomposity..." intones the reader at 1 hour 41 minutes and 12 seconds of a total length of over 9 hours - just for part one of the project. Equally dedicated is the blogger who has decided to Tweet all 15,000 phrases over however long it takes. So, not to be outdone, Id like to establish the Kleiser Challenge by Tweeting a 'useful' phrase each week and getting you to fit it somewhere into your daily conversation or any other real context you may come up against - business presentations, best man speeches, letters to the Tax office, for example. Tweet your best efforts back for imaginary points and another impressive bulge in your word power.


And, good luck - it's a wordy world out there.

3 June 2014

The First Book

William Caxton (Elliot Stock Facsimile edition 1877)

This is quite a mysterious thing when first pulled from the bookshelf. It is large format, quite heavy and with a sombre brown binding that has no wording on it, not even a title on the spine. But the elegant, slightly ecclesiastical pattern that is embossed into the front and back boards seems to be a clear signal that something special lies within.

First thing on a random opening is a dense block of blackletter type that looks like the meticulous work of a calligrapher. The smooth variations in the thickness of the lines that make up each individual letter seem to come from the skilful manipulation of an inky nib - capitals S, B and A are particularly fancy in this respect. The outsize capital P that starts the page is the height of three lines of body text and is what typographers would call a drop cap. It has the colour of that red oxide stuff that is used to treat rust on cars, as do a number of marks shaped like a backward D or P that crop up within the text and are presumably paragraph markers.

For a few seconds, the text is more or less illegible, but I can gradually get the hang of it - that drop cap P, for example, is for 'Pythagoras'. The legibility is further hampered by the eccentric 15th century spellings and sentence structure. Still, with a bit of squinting, I find out that Pythagoras said that 'the saule is perpetuel' and that he 'moderated so his mate and his drinke that he was at noo tyme fatter nor leener than other'.

Front bits. This book is withdrawn library stock and pasted inside the front board is a very neat official label from Lancaster Public Library's Reference Department. On this is the coat of arms of the old borough of Lancaster with its motto 'Luck to Loyne' and a note in ink of the book's Dewey classification. Perhaps the staff of Lancaster's reference library were tidy by nature or perhaps they had a particular respect for this item, but, in contrast to the administrative graffiti that disfigures so many ex-library books, the only other marks from them are two very discreet ink stamps.

Leafthrough. The overriding impressions on leafing through this book are of neatness and care. The publishers have taken a lot of trouble to get this just right. The pages are of a high-quality, but quite fibrous, laid paper showing the characteristic grid pattern that comes from the way it is manufactured. This in turn is perfect for Caxton's typeface which seeps comfortably into the surface of the page, stopping just short of blotching, and reinforcing the feel of the text as handwriting. On each page the text block sits in a perfectly judged amount of space so that the whole thing is as clean as a Kindle screen.

Looking into it. This book is a technological feat, layered across four centuries. It came about through a collaboration between the bibliophile and book collector William Blades and the printer and publisher Elliot Stock. In a preface, Blades tells how, in 1477, citizens were astonished at the magical output of Caxton's small wooden press which he had brought from Bruges to set up in a Westminster tenement known as the 'Red Pale'. But that surprise was as nothing, supposed Blades, to the disbelief that Caxton would have shown if he had been told that, 400 years later, 'an art which would employ sunbeams instead of types - one almost as useful and precious as his own - would one day be used to reproduce with the minutest accuracy this early work of the English press'.

The inspiration for producing a facsimile of the Dictes and Sayings by means of photolithography was the quadricentennial of its original printing. This book was widely believed to be the first book printed in England, and was certainly the first to include a colophon specifying the date and place of its production. Because of this, its 400-year anniversary was marked by a massive exhibition on the history of printing held in South Kensington. Over 4,500 items were exhibited, including rare books and ancient printing presses, and the proceedings were opened by William Gladstone who also went pottering about to shake hands and observe presses in action. 

The exhibition told a tale of how Caxton's technology, borrowed from Gutenburg, had been improved and modernised but never essentially replaced. This facsimile of the first book was not the only spin-off project from the show, which included among its exhibits the first bible ever printed with moveable metal type (by Gutenberg in 1450-55) and the latest - a pocket-sized bible printed in 12 hours in an edition of 100 on 30 June 1877, the opening day of the exhibition. This presentation edition (No.1 was given to Queen Victoria, No.2 to William Gladstone, No.10 to the Emperor of Brazil) was put together with the latest techniques and at speed. The paper had been specially made by Oxford University Press only days before, and the printed sheets dried artificially before being whisked to London on an express train and then bound by a team of 101 bookbinders. 

It was an echo of a challenge that Caxton had set himself when producing his first printed book for his patrons in Bruges. In his edition of The Recuyell and Histories of Troye of 1471, he tells how he had promised 'dyuerse gentilmen' that he would provide them with copies of the book as quickly as he could. This being brand new technology, he felt it necessary to explain that his book was 'not wreton with penne and ynk as other bokes ben', and that it was, miraculously, 'begonne in oon day & also fynyshid in oon day'.

As much as being a tribute to the history of printing, the South Kensington exhibition was also a celebration of the book as a physical object. The many Caxtons and other early blackletter books were priceless things, coveted by collectors. William Blades was himself probably the best-known collector of his day and the owner of several examples of Caxton's works. Some of these he had acquired from dealers or the dismantled libraries of country seats, but others he rescued from imminent destruction. Ten years after the exhibition, he published a chatty guide to everything he could think of that posed a threat to the book-object called The Enemies of Books. With its frontispiece engraving of a housemaid lighting a fire with leaves from a Caxton, it ran through an array of dangers that included damp, house flies, gas light and ignorance. In one anecdote, Blades tells of his visit to a church in St Martin's-le-Grand, where he discovered a copy of Caxton's edtion of The Canterbury Tales (with woodcuts) stuffed into a dirty pigeon hole and used for firing up the vestry grate.

For Caxton himself, though, the printed book as a thing seems to have been far less precious. As well as the speed of production of which he had boasted to his clients in Bruges, the new technology also had the merit of disposability. When Anthony Woodville, the 2nd Earl Rivers, who had painstakingly translated the Dictes and Sayings from a French original, gave Caxton the manuscript for printing, he had omitted a section in which Plato's Socrates gives his thoughts on women. Caxton included the piece at the end of his edition along with an apology to Earl Rivers for doing so. Caxton speculates how the section can come to have been missed by the translator - 'peradventure, the wind had blown over the leaf during the translation' - or maybe, the Earl was in love and 'some fair lady hath desired him to leave it out of his book'.

Either way, it was not a problem for Caxton with his new way of making books. If anyone were offended by the sayings of Socrates that he had included against his patron's wishes, he advised that 'they with a pen race it out, or else rend the leaf out of the book'. It's probably not something he would have wished on a book produced by a bench full of hunched monks scratching away by candlelight, but for something that could be knocked out in 'oon day' it wasn't so bad. For William Blades, on the other hand, the idea must have been sacrilege.