Thursday, June 30, 2011

That's so gay!

Written for the Foyles blog.

I remember when I was about 14 years old deciding to be gay. I'm not talking about a decision to switch sexualities, but a decision to accept that that was actually the label under which my desires fell.

It's a curious feeling, the mental freedom that arises from accepting a label. All of those uncertain questions about your personal nature like, Am I really different? They disappear.

And they're immediately replaced by questions of how to be defined within the bounds of this label.

I told my friends eventually, first leaving some time for them to figure it out for themselves... actually, I was hoping that they would figure it out for themselves so that I wouldn't have to the broach the topic. The fear that comes from telling people at first is similar to taking a bungee jump without the guarantee of bounce. It's not the fear of horror, it's not the fear of the unimaginable. It's a paranoia, a slow and very realistic dread that the peace you found in your label could be an act of war for the other people. To make matters worse, there is constantly a floating question, a little devil on the left-hand shoulder: Do other people need to know?

Before I told anyone, I did what I usually do when I'm uncertain; I visited the library.

There was a gay and lesbian section, both sides of a row of bookshelves. The size of it alone should have indicated to me that I was not alone.

Terrified that other readers would pass judgement, pour scorn, and possibly start hurling verbal abuse at me because of the area I was browsing, I devised a scheme to remain clandestine whereby I would breeze past the shelves, discretely snatch up a book with an interesting spine, and sit in a more manly section to read it. I did this a few times over the course of a few weeks.

Not long after, it dawned on me. Nobody breezes in a library. My breezing was probably attracting enough attention on its own. I also learned quickly that an attractive spine is no way to judge the contents of a book.

Of course this is a ridiculous way to go about life, and eventually I borrowed a discrete looking gay novel (9781902852409) by burying it within a pile of 11 other books. I went home to read it quietly.

It was a good read. I would recommend it; good humor, apt sense of character, swift and engaging plot about a (possible) murderous flatmate.

More importantly it wasn't about being gay, it was just about gay characters. That was a mind opener to the boy who felt as if homosexuality was a branded lifestyle, like trendy, or skater, or goth. Here were characters that worried about normal things (because all young teenagers think the adult world is about layers of worries), like paying rent, and getting along with friends.

So I got bolder and bolder with my gay book borrowing at the library, learning more and more that being gay was not that important a defining characteristic, until I stopped borrowing them. I didn't stop because someone caught me, I stopped out of boredom. I needed to read something else.

I was gay, and it didn't seem so important anymore.

I realize it seems contradictory that I'd be writing about something I think is unimportant. But it is not without importance, not when it's possible to feel caged by a fear of other people's views. Other people don't need to know about your sexuality, but it shouldn't be a problem when it does come up. For me, being gay isn't about the things that go on behind closed doors; that's private and doesn't need labels. Being gay is being able to talk as freely as everyone else.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Literary Deppths

Written for the Foyles blog.

Everyone loves Johnny Depp. Simple as.

I had a conversation with a colleague the other day that went something like this:

"It lost the idea of the book," he bemoaned. "The munchkins weren't nearly as charming as they were in the book. And they got it all wrong, Wonka was supposed to be wonderful, not creepy. To top it all it had that guy in it."

"It had a few guys in it."

"You know the guy. Mr. Creepy. Tim Burton's favourite person in the whole wide world, apart from Danny Elfman."

"You mean, Johnny Depp?"

"Argh!" my friend cried out painfully, as if I had punched him in the eye with Depp's name. "Yeah, that one. I don't get why people like him. He can't act, he lets his make-up do the acting for him. He thrives on doing impressions of rock-stars. He's not even good-looking, and yet everyone falls at his feet."

"I think," I ventured carefully, "that you like to moan about him."

"Oh," he said, smacking the table. "I love to moan about him. There's so much material."

So, it seems that even people who don't like Johnny Depp love him in some way.

It does seem that most people agree, whatever else they want to say about Tim Burton's adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, that Depp's oddball performance was the most interesting thing about it. He took all the wonder and kinesis of the character in the book, and replaced it with creepiness and gracefullness.

Fan's of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland were divided when pictures were released of Depp clowning it up in costume for the Mad Hatter. But divisions quickly settled when the film came out and it was realised that the performance was nicely understated and perfectly suited the film's aesthetic, without shredding the original character.

The man's already proven that he can pull of a Hunter S. Thompson, albeit a Thompson in various stages of reality, and we're soon to see that he can probably pull off a Thompson character in The Rum Diary.

In fact, is this a trend? Is Depp now Hollywood's first choice for crackpot characters?

And just as Hollywood seems to be slowing up it's relationship with literary adaptations, Depp seems to be doing the opposite. Which literary character do you think he will go for next? Who would you like to see him 'bring to life'?

Personally, I think I'd like to see him in a fat-suit as Ignatius P. Reilly. Or possibly pragmatic Passepartout (although there doesn't really need to be another adaptation of this book).

If he wants to do creepy characters from Roald Dahl books, maybe he would make an effective Miss Trunchball...

Thursday, June 9, 2011

(ab)Use of words

I once met a person who held the general belief that there is a correct way to use language. They thought: Yes, it is fun to make up words, but shouldn't you use the ones that are already in the dictionary? Grammar is there to help you provide clarity, not aid ambiguity. If nothing else, incorrect spelling is a sign of a disordered mind. And muddling words like Mrs. Malaprop and Rev. Spooner is a clear indication of diminished intelligence.

Another way - an inoffensive way - of putting this would be that, in the eyes of other people, a person is the sum of their words.

The thing is, language is a constantly shifting, shape changing beast, evolving to suit the culture that uses it. Words and structures survive only through pragmatism - a survival of the fittest, if you will. Language is a more utilitarian creature than we like to admit. 

   Is this the nature of something that can be classified as correct or incorrect?

It was with this attitude that I picked up 'Brave New Words: A Language Lover's Guide to the 21st Century'.

The first word that grabs my attention is 'digerati'. It is another recent child of 'literati', who also spawned 'glitterati' and 'chatterati' in the decades just past. Does this mean that we now have a new combining form that means an elite, slightly glam group of people? Bring on the politerati and soccerati!

Another word that caught my attention was 'chugger'. It's a word I first heard myself somewhere around the beginning of University when it was a popular job amongst my friends. I didn't think it was that common a word outside the 'chugger' community. Yet here it is in print. A word will only end up in the dictionary once it has passed the five-times frquency test: found in print five times in five different sources in five years. Newspapers must have caught onto the term.

Like 'bling', a word that stormed across the general collective vocabulary so quickly and so suddenly that it feels like it was always there.

'Bling' was a word that first appeared in 60's America, used now and then as an ideophone. It was picked up by rappers in later decades as a noun for expensive jewelry, supposedly to trivialize the value. Eventually it became so common in mainstream culture that it was able to make the jump across the Atlantic, where it picked up it's own local meaning:

"bling /tt/ cool new aquisition ('Oi, Conner, ya seen me bling cell?)"
        - 'Dijja Wanna Say Sumfing? A Guide to Estuary English.'

  It's much fun to mangle words, and just as enjoyable to watch meanings wear and warp. New words give voice to ideas that otherwise have no name, or have to be described to be comprehended. And loaded with fresh cultural baggage as they are, some of these words carry a sting in use. 'Bling' crossed many social boundaries in derisive or ironic usages. 'Chugger', teddy-bear-ish as it sounds, is often used with a tone of contempt for the way they invade privacy. 

If you recognise these words you probably recognise them from news sources. A surprising number of neologisms are coined by, or enter the word pool through journalists, newspapers and television. 'Stealth tax', 'post-democracy', 'Bushism', and 'sheeple', for example.

The word 'sheeple' opens some interesting philosophical doors. 'Sheeple' are sheep-people, not a botched genetic experiment, but a derogatory appellation for people who take their opinions and actions wholesale from other people. If a person is the sum of their words, what does it mean when their words belong to someone else?

Stephen Poole's book, 'Unspeak: Words Are Weapons', makes an interesting case for neologisms being used to cloak ideas, or slide new ones into the public conscience. Words like 'surgical strike', 'extremism', the difference between 'abuse' and 'torture' (there is none in the context he describes).

One phrase in particular stood out for me exactly because the intentions behind it silently slipped past when I first tried to figure out what it meant. 'Surgical' comes with notions of precision, delicacy, specifically in a medical setting. By association through usage it suggests sterility, whiteness, doctors and surgeons trying to provide life-saving help. Using the adjective to modify a military term shifts all of these associations from the one field to the other. Hey presto! A precise, clean, life-saving military strike.

So, words that have deeply ingrained connotations, combined with sheer saturation, can be used to manipulate perceptions. Is this correct? It is almost certainly ethically incorrect to purposefully mislead.

So, is there a correct way to use language? Sadly, I don't believe the answer is ever going to be black and white, or even just simple. Language is too big and complex, like the creatures that invented it, and it will always be an answer in degrees. 

Bookshelf of Memories

I have too many books.
People say there is no such thing as too many books, but if you have to shift as many boxes as I do whenever I move house, you probably know what I mean by too many books. My problem is, whenever a book makes me feel something, anything really, I keep it. This happens far too often.
The hoarding problem goes deeper - about forty years deeper, since I inherited the problem off my mother. I have also read, borrowed and liberated all of her books that took me somewhere great. It was her copies of Narnia, the Famous FiveChrestomanci, and Dickens that I grew up with.
To look at my bookshelves, it's easy to see that a great chunk of the material there is children's books. I find it the most difficult to part with these books, because the books that I read back then are like family photo albums. Every time you read a book you take something new from it, but, equally so, it takes you back somewhere else.
Until recently, I had one whole shelf of Redwall books by Brian Jacques. These were a staple of lunch-times at school. They did not change my life, but they ate up a significant chunk of time that should have been spent studying. Having not read back over one for a couple of years I sent most of them down to the charity shop, regretting it a couple of weeks later when I found out that Brian Jacques had passed away. The nagging urge to read these tales once more has not gone away, compounded by the fact that all but a few had gone from the shelves of my local charity shop when I went to try and buy them back.
Even more recently, having been dropped in a position where I needed to move house, I ruthlessly boxed up books I hadn't touched for a while with the intention of also sending them to the charity shop. In there went some of my mother's books, including: all of the Chrestomanci books by Diana Wynne-Jones, as well Howl's Moving CastleArcher's Goon, and The Ogre Downstairs. I opened up the newspaper a few days ago to find that Diana Wynne-Jones has also sadly passed away - this is turning out to be a bad year for the understated masters of children's fantasy. But I am very thankful that my slothful nature has left me with her books; there is no amount of obituaries that can do her justice in the way that her own words speak to my childhood.
I'd like to use this opportunity to take my hat off to Diana Wynne-Jones and Brian Jacques. They have carved a handsome and sizeable niche in their genres, on the bookshelves of shops, libraries, bedrooms, and also on the bookshelf of my memories.

Inuf ov th siliinis

Written for the Foyles blog.

Growing up with English as a first language, it's pretty easy to forget all that hassle involved in learning the spelling rules. You take for granted the incredible flexibility of letter combinations like 'ugh', and the myriad of ways that you can spell the 'ee' sound. Until you stumble across a word like 'æsthetics', or 'dipthong' and your tongue trips over the curious and slightly alien lettering.
I quite often get asked by people who speak English as a second language how to spell words, followed by an exasperated flap of paper and pen when they find out the word they wanted to spell has a silent 'p' at the end of it.
So, I propose the following textual experiment.
Say we do away with unnecessary letter combinations, such as: 'æ', 'gh', 'œ', 'ph', 'rh', and 'sque'. And we replace them with 'e', 'g', 'f/p', 'r', and 'sk' respectively.
Silent p's, b's, and l's, and double l's, t's and d's, waste precious resources with their superfluity. The same goes for their distant and less common cousins, the silent 's' in iland, and the silent 'u' in gard.
While 'C' looks lovely in the combination 'ABC', is a bit of a rogue letter in my personal opinion. 'K' and 's' do the job much better. The digraf 'qu' can ekwaly be replased by the more fonetic 'k' or 'kw'. That leaves only one sound to be kovered by the 'c', and that's the 'ch' sound in 'butch'.
The '-le' ending is normaly pronounsed '-al/-el'. As wel as the '-age' ending is normaly pronounsed '-ij'.
Then, every time we use the past tense, the final '-ed' are generally pronounst '-t'. So let's use that where aplikable. Same for '-yz' instead of '-ise'.
This is only the konsonants. We're far from finisht; now the vowels need to be kustomyzd.
We'l have to give the five vowels a kwik make-over: 'a', 'e', 'i', 'o', and 'u' are short vowels, and 'aa', 'ee', 'ii', 'oo', 'uu' bekume long vowls. Soo suthenas wud bii siting on the graas in the gaaden drinking tee, while northenas aar reeding buuks on the gras. While wii aar at it, let's sort out sum of thoos peskii vowels. Silent e's serv a very useful purpus, as we aar tort as kid's, yet if wii triitid th utha vowls with th simpal respekt thee deservd, th silent 'e' wud bekum redundant.
'Y' has a very unik sound aal on it's oon, and it shudn't bii konfuust with th 'i' sound in 'fight', or 'white'. A dubal 'y' kan duu that job.
Right, gud byy tuu al thoos suudo-dipthongs (th ones that aarn't strictly spiiking dipthongs): 'ea' (as in 'tea'), 'ei' (as in 'deceive'), 'oeu' (as in 'manoeuver'), 'ou' (as in 'colour'). And gud byy tuu th slyytlii grootesk leta kombinashun 'ough' (as in 'doughnut').
Th 'ou' yuu sii in 'clout', 'doubt' and 'flout' shud bii replast with 'ow', so as not to konfuus it with th utha 'ou' pronunshiieeshuns.
And I think that's abowt dus it.
Sii, that wos noo hemorij of yuusful letas, and alredii th Inglish language is luking simpla and iisiia tuu yuus. Owr childran kan spend les tyym weestd on owt-deetd speling ruuls and spend mor tyym lerning haad mathmatiks, and stuudents of Inglish aar seevd owrs - yirs iiven? - of konfushun and dowt.