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Sunday 27 July 2008

The devil's not in Google!

I am about to finish "War and Peace". At last! It has been a mammoth, but totally enjoyable, read. I had read it before, long ago, and found it hard going, but this time I have had the benefit of the new (Penguin edition) translation and that or a greater maturity or both, has made all the difference. Easy to read though I have found it - even the names were no bar to my enjoyment - I have taken an inordinately long while over it, so long, indeed, that I am not giving any clues as to how long. The possible reasons for a slow read are legion, of course. Indeed, there are reasons and there are causes. A reason might be a desire to savour the work and to give due attention to its deeper issues; a cause might be technical or a tendency to nod off. Beyond saying which, I will remain stum - except to point out that reason and cause are not necessarily mutually exclusive and to add that I had been feeling very inferior about my declining reading powers, but that all has now changed, and I am feeling positively superior. And for why? Because I glean from an article by Nicholas Carr in The Independent that Bruce Friedman, a pathologist at The University of Michigan Medical School, a blogger on the use of computers in medicine, has put it on record that his use of the internet (and of Google in particular) has so messed with his mind as to have completely deprived him of the ability to read "War and Peace" at all. His internet searching has changed - and not for the better - the way he reads and, because of that, the way he thinks. It seems that this belief he has is shared by many, and is the basis of a polemic that has been rumbling around on the blogs for some time, though I must admit that I had not come up against it before now.

Back in April in my post One Man's Meat is Another Man's Haiku I discussed the contrasting mental processes involved in the reading of alphabet- and ideogram-based scripts. I also touched upon the consequences that it is thought this has for the brain, for the way we use the brain, for its future development and for the ways in which different parts of the brain are involved and their structures modified by the different demands placed upon them. Subsequently, I gave as a dramatic illustration of this, the case of a bilingual man (speaking Chinese and English) who had a severe stroke, as a result of which he totally lost the ability to read English, though his reading skills remained unaffected so far as Chinese was concerned.

What I did not make clear at that time was the degree to which these structural changes take place right across the brain, and are not restricted to the areas specifically concerned with reading and writing. They occur, for example, in those areas which give us our memory and in those devoted to the interpretation of visual stimulii in general, including those which on the face of it have nothing to do with reading and writing. They have also been shown to affect concentration. It is this more general effect, some now believe, that is the cause of Friedman's inability to read long texts slowly and with the deeper thought they require. To cast doubts on the unalloyed benefits of modern technologies or upon our ways of working with them is to run the risk of being dubbed a Luddite, and no one wishes that upon themselves, yet the Luddites have always been proved right in what they warned against. The machines introduced in the Industrial Revolution did cost jobs; the introduction of printing and even writing -(opposed by no less a person than Plato) did have the detrimental effects they were warning their peers about; computers have not been a total boon. Where they have been wrong, the Luddites, has been in failing to foresee (or to admit) the undoubtedly great benefits that would considerably outweigh their objections. But that is not to say we should close our eyes to the disadvantages and stumble blindly on, ignoring them.

So is there some way we can have our cake and eat it, have the benefits of Google, but perhaps a much enhanced Google capable of opening its doors to the desires of those of us who miss the more joined-up, bookish way of working? At present it would seem not, if only because there are too many vested interests stacked against that idea, too many providers, sponsors and promoters on the internet who would have too much to lose if we were ever to stop bouncing from site to site. The more we bounce, the more the cash tills ring for them.

Carr was simply reporting how Friedman and others now believe that other differences in reading and study methods influence the development of our brains and minds in ways that they see as alarming and of the greatest profundity, that the alphabet/ideogram example I blogged about back in April is just that: just one example of a general effect, that the ways in which we choose to go about our reading, writing, studying and collating, and that whatever tools we decide to use for those purposes will have a profound effect upon the way we think, and through that upon the way in which our neural connections are made and broken. In other words, will have a profound effect upon the way in which our brains are structured. In a small way I have found this for myself: if I am working, let us say on the first draft of a poem, and choose to do so using a ballpoint pen, that will not produce the same result (I am absolutely certain, but have found no way to prove) as attempting the same end using a keyboard. Indeed, Carr gives an illustration involving Nietzsche which points in the same direction: Nietzsche when going blind and unable to read or write without considerable distress and severe pain to his eyes, switched to using a typewriter. Once he had learnt to touch-type, he did so with his eyes closed. The words, which had stopped, flowed again - but differently: where they had previously produced rhetoric, now they were telegrammatic. (read more)

What Friedman is saying is that his own thinking has become "staccato" in that he is regularly scanning short passages of text at speed and from many different sources, but can no longr absorb the information in an extended piece of text. The latter requires the ability to make less obvious connectios at a deeper level, which the former does not. He can no longer read War and Peace, but could presumably read a less demanding paperback. Scott Karp, another blogger, this time on online media, reports the same symptoms, but suggests an even more alarming diagnosis. It may be that some of us have had the same misgivings, have felt that because we skim and read shallowly a lot of the time, we are getting out of the way of reading deeply, as a marathon runner who, for whatever reason, took to training over shorter and shorter distances might soon discover that he could no longer run the full marathon. (Though Karp and Friedman would argue that the analogy is not apt, that what is going on is more profound than that.) Maybe we have felt the truth of that a little, but have comforted ourselves with the thought (reasonable enough so far as it goes) that we do what we do because it is the quickest and most convenient way in which to assemble the information we require. We Google because days of searching dusty books in dismal libraries are replaced by a few moments clicking away on the mouse. The living is easy, and if we no longer have the opportunity to make those deep and rich connections that reading (books) used to allow, well, that is unfortunate, we miss it, but for now such pleasures must wait.

"What, though," asks Karp, "if I do all my reading on the web, not so much because the way I read has changed" (he might have added 'or because the purpose for which I read has changed'), "ie I am just seeking convenience, but because the way I THINK has changed?" Studies made into the way people use online facilities in institutions such as The British Library, have found that the vast majority "bounce" from text to text, skimming never more than a page or two at the most, usually a paragraph or two, and hardly ever returning to a previous page. The evidence would tend to suggest that they have become information decoders and rarely progress beyond that. I would love to try an experiment: give to a group of researchers and students the task of studying some topic new to them, and let them cut-and-paste to their heart's content or use whatever technique they might prefer, then give a matched group the same task, but with the proviso that they research it from books. I guarantee that the second group, though they would almost certainly take longer, would be more critically aware and that their resulting text would be characterized by more 'joined-up' threads of thought. Perhaps then we could even give the first group the books to read to see if there were any 'after thoughts'.

That short reverie brings us, I believe, to the heart of the matter: the differences and the relationships which exist between data, information, knowledge and wisdom. Computers work with data, but are the hub of information technology, so we will start there - and at the beginning. The word information from the Latin informatio / informationis means an outline, an idea, and from informare / informatum, to give form to, describe. But it is data that is the most basic element of Information Technology: the ages, test scores and ethnic origins of the children in my class perhaps. We - or the computer - may give the data shape so that it becomes information: say, the average age or the percentage of children being disadvantaged by having to learn in a language that is not their mother tongue, for example. From these we may be able to draw certain consequences, such as the degree to which the non-english pupils are being disadvantaged. This is knowledge. Wisdom might involve the ability to rank in importance the various pieces of knowledge we have gained, to see what can be done to improve the situation, and to establish priorities.

But computers are so good at processing data that they encourage us to stay at that level. They began life as cryptographic machines. That is where they have come from, and where, you begin to feel, they would like to stay, but they have become hugely influential in everything to do with reading, writing, the production of graphics and with printing. It is almost inevitable, therefore, human nature being what it is, that those who use them should tend to stay with what they (the computers) are good at. I could almost draw the analogy of a carpenter who for some reason decides one day that he will no longer choose the best tool for the job, but instead will confine himself to the jobs his favourite tool is good at.

But it doesn't even end with computers and Googling, for since the time when such means of research became all-pervading, the more pernicious aspects of the web's "good life" have spread out through the rest of society: Newspapers have begun to shrink in size and their editors have reduced the length of their articles; T.V. programme-makers have shortened their productions, face-to-face interviews have positively shrivelled and their tone has become less searching and more 'staccato', even when the interviwer is trying to be aggressive - though more frequently now they are shallow and the interviewee's answers are not followed-up, but we are bounced straight to the next prepared question. I can recall when in the '70's and '80's Michael Parkinson might interview no more than three guests at something like depth for anything up to an hour. More recently he would have interviewed half a dozen or more people in that time. Even the news, political and current affairs programmes pander to the quick-dip brigade - which, alas includes myself and, I guess, most of us. But if we cannot do too much to modify the nature of the technology, we could maybe put a little more of ourselves into the way we use it. My own feeling, which is little short of a conviction, is that the devil is not in Google, but in the hyperlinks. They have often been compared to the footnotes in a book. The analogy is apt in some ways, but with one mighty big reservation: when you break off from the thread of an argument in a book to consult a footnote, that footmote does not then present you with a dozen footnotes to the footnote, any one of which might lead you off to another score of footnotes, on and on ad infinitum, further and further from the thread you were following. Perhaps hyperlinks should come with a health warning... Bounce we must, I see that, but maybe we could at least try to bounce with our eyes open and the brain engaged to remind us of where we were before we lost our focus.

Sunday 20 July 2008

Paul Klee in the Naples Aquarium

I expect to be less active in the blogosphere over the next few days - not absent, just less active. Today (Sunday) we are celebrating our fiftieth wedding anniversary and at the weekend we have our daughter-in-law's fortieth birthday celebrations. In between times we have workmen arriving to beef-up the house's insulation - global warming, don't you know. We shall have to see how it all works out, but please excuse if I don't get round to everyone.

Paul Klee in the Naples Aquarium

In midnight light of heaven behind glass
a silk and damask flower clawed its prey;
a pebble broke apart and swam away...
and rows of dancers became blades of grass.
Waymarking ways along which Klee might pass
on walks with line to metaphor, that fey
old faker, form, the end and death to Klee
of art, had brought him to its masterclass.
The tunes his eyes beheld he'd uncompose
on tesselated staves rewrite, transpose
from world to world. Change and formation,
soul and psychic form were all Creation
gave with which to quicken vacuous space
and shape and shade it to a spirit's face

Paul Klee
Biography and Images

Wednesday 16 July 2008

Bits and Pieces

Well, actually, just a couple of pieces on this occasion, the first one really an update to an earlier post, that on Environmental Art in which I was extremely critical of Mark Wallinger's proposal for a white horse 33 times life size to occupy a currently vacant field on the site of the not-yet-built Ebbsfleet. It will, it is said, do for Ebbsfleet what The Angel of the North has done for the North East: it will regenerate the area by giving it an identity, an iconic image. My reservations mainly concern the scale, and would extend to any other naturalistic sculpture plonked down out of scale and out of context with its surroundings. The other contenders are: Rachel Whitehead's pile of recycled rubbish with a house set on top; Richard Deacon's towering 26 interlocking steel frames; Daniel Buren's disc, rather like a huge T.V. receiving dish, set with wings and Christopher le Brun's tower of cubes of diminishing size. They all, to my mind, qualify as that which Joan Bakewell has called plop art.

I said that my objections relate to naturalistic works out of scale and context. One of the comments levied at my May post raised the example of The Colossus of Rhodes, a valid point. The Colossus was a represention of the Greek God Helios. Unfortunately, we cannot know what the Colossus looked like or how it related to its environment. It is thought that it stood at the entrance to the harbour at Rhodes. Some authorities have it standing astride the entrance, in which case, of course, there would be good reasons for its size, reasons that would put it in some sort of relationship with its environment, as, for example, is the Statue of Liberty.

As also is, I believe from what I have seen and read, the new statue Aspire at Nottingham University. Aspire is meant to emphasize to the students that they may aspire to anything. It was unveiled on the 24th of June, its completion having been delayed by high winds. An inverted cone shape, with a somewhat lacy feel to it (Nottingham is famour for its lace), it marks the sixtieth anniversary of the granting of the university's charter and it stands sixty meters high, and is the first reason for this post. It is, I believe, the perfectly acceptable face of "non plop" art.

To give some comparisons: The Angel of the North is 66 feet high, The Colossus of Rhodes was 110 ft and Christ the Redeemer is 120 feet, Aspire is 197 ft.

But we are not finished: there is more updating to be done as the taste for bigger and yet bigger art works grows apace, for a few days ago Amish Kapoor stepped upon the stage to unveil plans for five colossal works of art, a joint project of himself and Cecil Balmond, a structural designer. This autumn Kapoor will be working on the first of these, Temenos (Here for virtual tour), a £2.7 million steel structure which will dwarf its chosen site in Middlehaven, Middlesborough. A series of circular steel rings and cables, it will weigh in at some 66 tonnes and be almost fifty meters high and a hundred and ten meters long. The plan, the hope, is for these sculptures to go a long way towards regenerating the Tees Valley and "be a potent symbol for the whole of Tyneside".

And the motive for me posting this update? It is to put the other side of the coin. I possibly gave the impression in my previous post that I was "against" all sculpture conceived on a colossal scale, but so far as I can judge from what information is available at present, these latter proposals strike me as being in tune with their surroundings and the very opposite of plop art. I may prove to be wrong in that, of course. Kapoor's proposals have not even receivd planning permission as yet.

Dud Novels

A surprise decision by the judging panel of the
Man Booker Prize
has been to plant trees for every poor novel submitted for their consideration. The philosophy, it would seem, goes something like this: trees had to be pulped to produce this rubbish, so the least we can do is try to replace them. That is as far as they have yet got in the decision-making. They still have to decide where to plant these trees and how many. Should there be just one tree per bad novel, or a whole copse, perhaps? How many trees does it take, I wonder, to launch a crappy book upon the unsuspecting public? And what sort of tree? A weeping willow springs to mind.
But perhaps the most important decision still to be made is whether or not the offending novel(s) should be named and shamed - as is inceasingly becoming the custom these days in all walks of life. If so, I have a sneaky suspicion that the sales for the duds will soar by at least as much as the long- and perhaps even the short-listed books. Perhaps in twenty-five or fifty years time (or some other Man Booker Prize anniversary) we might even hear of a book winning the "Dud of Duds Award" - maybe having a whole forest to itself?

Saturday 12 July 2008

Death should be a woman

Some two or three weeks back I mentioned in a comment that the creative juices were running somewhat dry. Jim suggested that maybe I should try to write on the theme "The French have it right, Death should be a woman" (or words to that effect). He further suggested that self-setting would probably not work. So being a contrary old git, I tried the self-setting first and posted the results last week - some "fragments", as I termed them, on the theme of roses, a subject that would not normally have suggested itself to me. This week, however, I got down to working on Jim's suggestion. I did not know the saying, beyond having heard something like it expressed once by an aunt, and I have to say that as a theme or a title it struck me as weird. Working on it seemed even more so - at first. Later it seemed more natural. Here, for what it is worth, is the result. How it compares with last week's effort, and therefore where it leaves the experiment, I have no idea, except that it is arguably more finished.

Death should be a woman

Hush a bye baby, on the tree top,
When the wind blows the cradle will rock;
When the bow breaks, the cradle will fall,
And down will come baby, cradle and all.

But death it is
and thoughts of death
that rock the cradles
of all the people
of all ages.

is Death-sickness
which is a kind
of motion sickness.

Like my "dead" aunt
reviving on a slab she thought was ice
in what she thought was Heaven --
and ever after thought
the picture books
had erred, the painters
had it wrong, that
angels have a dress code (long
white gowns and masks, white
rubber boots, no wings),
and ever after knew
that though she was not meant for Hell,
Heaven was too cold
to hold the likes of her.

Her "dummy run"
(as she would have it)
reformed her views
of Heaven, left
her thoughts of death unchanged --
and multiplied her fears.

She kept a pub in Islington
and in the pub
a parrot, dumb
until she'd bellow "Time!"
when it would squawk (enough
to wake the dead):
"Aint you buggers got no homes?"

Ever after her trial run
she'd cover the bird over
before she'd call for time.

The only person (until Jim)
I've ever known
or heard, suggest
that death
should be a woman,
who thought a woman's touch
could ease the pain,
the toothache in the gut.

Or like my dad:
went to church, "high
days and holidays", but sent
us children every week
to church or Sunday school;
saw something - "just
a bit" - of Belsen, after which
he asked to be Confirmed.
The padre came to see us,
to explain
why something so important
was happening out there,
outside the family,
said death had changed dad.
And it had.

I thought his faith would see him through.
But no, the last ride was
white knuckles to the end.

Perhaps if not a woman,
death should at least
be feminine.

Wednesday 9 July 2008

Just for openers...

The other day I picked up my copy of "Lempriere's Dictionary" by Lawrence Norfolk, with the intention of re-reading it. The opening sentence read "The young man dropped the book.". Nothing to write home about there, you might think, except that it reminded me of a talk at the local library that I and the rest of my class were taken to in my youth. It was given by a novelist whose name and details I have long since forgotten. I have forgotten most of the talk as well, and remember only that it was a tips-for-wannabe-writers sort of talk. What I do very vividly recall, though, is the bit about the absolutely primary importance of the opening sentence (or two). He told us he had written his first novel as a youth of about our age, and that its opening sentence had been: "Crash, the captain's head struck the deck!" It was, he assured us, still the best opening he had ever written. He could, he further assured us, tick all the criteria boxes for it: it made the reader want to read on because something was happening from the very first word; it set the tone for the writer to follow, making it that much easier for the story to unfold. There were other plusses, but they, too, have been lost to fading memory.

I suppose that "The young man dropped the book." might seem a little tame beside "Crash, the captain's head struck the deck!", but the one reminded me of the other and furthermore, it started me thinking about opening sentences that have struck me as being among the best, and why that was. We would all produce a different list, of course, and a thought that occurs to me is that I probably remember best the openings to those books that I enjoyed the most. Maybe there are great openings I have forgotten along with the forgettable novels they opened. Another caveat would be that they do not necessarily strike me now as they did then, when I first came to them. I have tried, therefore, to recall what were my feelings then. With that in mind, then, here, in no particular order, are the selections I remember thinking great when I first read them:

"They departed, the gods, on the day of the strange tide." : "The Sea" by John Banville : A story is all the better, to my way of thinking, for a touch of mystery or a hint of the supernatural. Both are here in the same sentence.

"A war ends in rags and dust." : "A Dance Between Flames" by Anton Gill : Succinct, and at the same time intruiging

"He appeared on the hill at first light. The scarp was dark against a greening sky and there was the bump of the barrow and then the figure, and it shocked." : "Ulverton" by Adam Thorpe : Once again, a touch of mystery in the description, deepening towards the end of the sentence - why the shock?

"Dr Iannis had enjoyed a satisfactory day in which none of his patients had died or got any worse." : "Captain Corelli's Mandolin" by Louis de Bernieres : Here it was the humour that got me - what else?

"I can see by my watch, without taking my hand from the left grip of the bike that it is eight-thirty in the morning." : "Zen and the Art of Motorcyle Maintenance" by Robert M Pirsig : Unnecessary and apparently inconsequential information from a narrator who yet presents as someone with no time for such frills. Needs resolving.

Rattisbon Arno Domini mense decembri mclv Cronicle of Baudolino of the family of Aulario" : "Baudolino" by Umberto Eco : Well, 'sobvious, innit?

"STATELY, PLUMP, BUCK MULLIGAN CAME FROM THE STAIRHEAD, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed." : "Ulysses" by James Joyce : A touch of humour - and a hint perhaps of something darker. Will there prove to be any significance to the crossed mirror and razor?

"That was when I saw the pendulum." : "Foucault's Pendulum" by Umberto Eco : We know it is Foucault's pendulum from the book's title, so the question arises: So?

"Up above the wagon rolling along a stony road, big thick clouds were hurrying East through the dusk." : "The First Man" by Albert Camus : Just a workman-like bit of scene-setting which does its job well and leads you to think the rest of the book might be as well written.

"Many years later, as he faced the firing squad,Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice." : "One Hundred Years of Solitude" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez : A rather refined version of "Crash. The Captain's head struck the deck"!

Sunday 6 July 2008

Poems, mostly roses : fragments and fragrances

Having hit a dry patch recently, I thought I would try challenging myself by setting a weekly topic, preferably one that would not normally suggest itself to me. This is my bag from the week just past. (Don't hold your breath though, the weekly bit will probably not pan out.)

Too many heavy blooms the standard bears,
as though a holy man has bowed his head
beneath too many heavy prayers.

The formal beauty of the rose,
self-replicating in concentric rings,
is neither fractal nor a fractal in a sense -
except the sense that "fractal" has in me.

The landscape changed with every step
and still with every pause for breath it changed
until I came upon the rose and knew at once:
it was the pivot of created things around which turned
earth, stars, and sun and moon and all that was;
that only it was still; that he who sought for stasis
inwardly, must focus on it
and be one with it.

Like many another child I would infuse
rose petals from our garden,
brewing perfume for my mother -
which she'd never use
or give attention to (much less affection),
nor even curiosity. You may conclude
she didn't ever smell of it...
It was the stink, I guess.

If when looking at a rose
you're thinking you have
never truly seen a rose
before, it is most likely
you have meditated
recently or taken drugs -
or found yourself
before great works of art.

My father loved conundrums. "Think,"
he said, "of your electric train...
of going forward on a single track, but then
reversing back without an instant's pause.
Would that be possible?" He drew
the scene so well, I clearly saw
the stationary moment -
and later saw it in a rose:
the way the forward motion
of its growth was stilled
to brief perfection
before decay's reverse.

Wednesday 2 July 2008

Mornings in the Newsagent's

I do not travel by bus or tram much these days. Indeed, I cannot recall when I last did so, unless I am to count the tour of Bath made a couple of years back in one of those open-topped tourist busses. That being so, the nearest I get to hearing the opinion of "The Man on the London Omnibus" (or any other mode of public transport, for that matter) are the conversations that take place in the newsagent's shop each morning. Recently these have (again!) included the thorny topic of what is to be done about our young people and the poor state of their education. In particular the debates have focussed on their inability to read and write and the dumbing down of English exams. The myth of being rewarded with marks for being able to write one's name has surfaced more than once. And then there came this week the news that a candidate was awarded 7.5% for writing "f*** off " on his paper. The mark was given, not by some rookie examiner, but by the chief examiner himself, who then went on to use the paper with trainee examiners as an example to them of how to mark. The principles are quite clear, he maintained: you give marks for correct spelling and for the sequencing of ideas - though as the pupil wrote nothing else against that particular question, and by the examiner's own admission the phrase had no relevance to the question, it is difficult to see what were the ideas he put into sequence... can you have a sequence of one?

I have always been of the opinion that spelling should be tested separately, and not as part of a creative writing excercise, for example. Everyone should be quite clear about what is being marked. But for the majority of the debaters in the newsagent's shop there are no such qualms: "If they can't spell, knock off the marks!" seems to sum up the attitude. But of course, that is not how it works. You do not knock off the marks that you have given for, let us say, developing a story with a beginning, a middle and an end, you just don't give any marks for spelling in the first place. This means that if something (like spelling) is to be taken into consideration, then marks must be allocated for it, guidance given as to how those marks are to be awarded. Furthermore, those marks must be awarded if the criteria are met. After which, it is all down to the examiner's interpretation, just as the application of rules in football hangs, in the last resort, on the referee's interpretation of them. It does mean, though, that marks may be awarded (in this instance, for spelling) in circumstances in which it would seem to most people more appropriate not to award marks at all.

I was reminded again of this issue by a reference on the radio this week to Winston Churchill's own description of his attempt at a Latin prose paper, part of his entrance examination for Harrow: "I wrote my name at the top of the page. I wrote down the number of the question: "1." After much reflection I put a bracket round it. Thus:"(I)." But thereafter I could not think of anything connected with it that was either relevant or true. Incidentally there arrived from nowhere in particular a blot and several smudges. I gazed for two whole hours at this sad spectacle : and then merciful ushers collected my piece of foolscap with all the others and carried it up to the Headmaster's table. It was from these slender indications of scholarship that Mr. Welldon drew the conclusion that I was worthy to pass into Harrow. It is very much to his credit. It showed that he was a man capable of looking beneath the surface of things: a man not dependent upon paper manifestations. I have always had the greatest regard for him."

Strangely, next to the cry of "why can't youngsters spell, these day?", I would guess that the next most common "newsagent moan" (if we stick to those concerned with the English language) is concerned with what a nonsense our spelling system is and how it's a wonder any child ever masters it! Of course, it isn't a system at all: that's the whole point about it. It hasn't come down to us in any sort of pure form, but as a hybrid script, a coming together of Old English and Norman French. The incompatability of these two made it almost inevitable that there would be no coherent system, but then throw in (as they did) heavy lashings of Greek and Latin and confusion was the more confounded. And there was one other event of great importance, what has become known as The Great Vowel Shift. It affected the way words were pronounced (particularly in London and the South of England), and therefore it had great relevance to the way in which spelling related to the spoken word, the cause of so much anguish these days. It is not always remembered that the spoken word is primary, that spelling merely attempts to represent it in some visual form. Until the thirteenth century words were pronounced very much in the Italian or Liturgical Latin way, but from then on, and over the next four hundred years or so there came about a gradual increase in the height of the tongue and a tendency to push it further forward until Middle English speech had become our Modern English version. The rift between spoken and written had become even wider and the ground had been prepared for the many movements that would attempt to reform our spelling - and, indeed other aspects of our language.

I have concentrated on spelling, but the reverse side of the same coin is punctuation, for which much the same arguments and counter-arguments are raised, but which seems to me to be more important than spelling, though punctuation is perhaps more of an art than a science, whereas spelling is but a convention. There is a lot of talk about "correct punctuation" (in the media as well as in the newsagent's), but I doubt that such a thing exists beyond a very minimal framework. Give two or more professional writers - or two or more examiners, come to that - an unpunctuated script and I guarantee that they will all punctuate it differently.

I have long had a hankering to try for the form of punctuation that was in use until the eighteenth century. It was based upon the pauses for breath which occur in spoken English, and not, as in our current system, upon grammatical structure. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries punctuation was heavily applied, though today the vogue is for a lightness of touch. Even so, there are many variations with some authors using different styles for different purposes and various in-house preferences.
Many of the marks and terms we use these days derive from the Greek and originate from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, at which time they were used to mark off sections of text, the comma and the colon being used to mark off sections in a line of verse. The use of the stop, even when grammatically correct, can imply a separation between sections of text that is not always appropriate, I feel. The voice, with its inflections and pauses is more flexible, as was punctuation when it was more closely related to these. Grammarians have much to answer for, maybe.

Here, to conclude, are a few thinking points:

  • How many authors, professional writers and other such are overly concerned with spelling and correct punctuation when getting down the first draft (which an examination answer usually is)?

  • For centuries the legal profession managed very well without punctuation of any sort, particularly in such documents as deeds and for conveyancing, considering that punctuation was the cause of much ambiguity. It is only since legal English has become established as the dominant international business language that this has changed. Punctuation has now established itself again in modern legalese.

  • James Joyce's Ulysses has an almost complete lack of standard punctuation (being partly based upon the spoken word and partly on "stream-of-consciouness"?), yet despite also lacking the usual narrative flow, is as understandable as any piece of writing can be - for we might well debate whether any work of literature can be completely understandable.

  • Is not the main consideration that the reader should be able to plug in to the author's intended (and, depending upon the nature of the writing, his unintended?) meanings?