Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Dancing with planks

To see Stephen Fry last night, talking about his new book on poetry. It seems - having heard his excerpts and read up to chapter one – like exactly the sort of thing that would have made my teens very different.

Had the same feeling last year about Bryson’s unravelling of science and Wilson’s vivid, teeming history; books that opened windows in my head. They had me wide-eyed and delighted, buying more copies for everyone’s birthdays, muttering, “Now I get how it works…”

That said, had they been around as I started my A levels, I’d probably not have read them anyway. Studiously ignored the much-spoken of Ways Of Seeing for years. No idea why – it’s quite brilliant.

Fry had lots of interesting things to say – especially so, since they reached through to this entrenched prosodophobe. I’d been coming round to the idea, though, that poetry might have some value. An evangelical chum put some rude and funny verse my way. Then William Goldman compared screenplays to poetry as an exercise in concise writing, nuggets of meaning that can’t be said in any fewer words. Which has been useful in all sorts of ways.

I’ve written scripts of one sort and another, stories and pitches and blurbs, and then there’s the ever-concise copy that pays the rent. But never poetry. Lyrics, a bit. Bits of stories. But a great deal of what clutters the notebooks I’ve been keeping since my teens is bits of phrasing, execrable puns, shufflings and reshufflings of words. And though I bought Fry’s book for the Doctor (as something to take to the States tomorrow), I found myself leafing through it last night until 1 in the morning.

On the value of poetry, Fry cited Wilde, that all art is useless. But he then goes further: that the unnecessary embellishments of life are what make it worth living. We can subsist on food pills and concrete tower blocks, but it deadens us, erodes our social abilities and empathy. Instead, we – the lucky ones – have wine and music and painting, things that rise above the okay, the that’ll-do, the (and it is a pejorative) mediocre. I’m wary of using the term “art”, but by care of our “craft”, we can make stuff we do that much better.

Which is a cosy idea, but not new. It made me think of the Parable of the Talents, where there’s an inherent, moral obligation to make the most of what we’ve got. (Jesus, of course, taught morality through stories, which is why the Bible still has great moral value, without our having to believe any of it’s literally true, or that the main character is still alive.)

So Fry’s point seemed to be that making the most of the language we use – mucking about with top words like “plank”, “Bonobo” and “spoon”, then revising, cutting, rethinking the arrangements – makes for a better existence.

That playing is important. I remember Robert Harris talking about writing Pompeii (on the South Bank Show, I think). He’d done his research, he’d plotted the book out. The actual writing was just a series of “solutions” to get him to the end. But I hate the idea of just joining the dots. The last month of writing The Time Travellers was miserable because I knew where the thing was going, and I was shackled to this predestined end. So I came up with ways of doing things differently, to try and surprise myself (and keep me awake). Even the very last chapter is full of stuff I came up with right at the last minute.

(Though whether that actually keeps it fresher and more interesting, isn’t my decision. We’ll see soon enough…)

Afterwards, there were questions (and yes, the inevitable non-question from someone, going on about who they were and then making some judgment on all that had been said. You have to have one of these at any Q&A. If the organisers ask people specifically not to do this, you get loads of them).

Fry’s answers were longer, more rambling, more expansive – which made me think that he must have prepared his talk. It had been more concise, more structured, more sure. It was, for his efforts (and though I think rambling has value of its own) better.

No questions about Fry writing Droo (I was too cowardly). But a chum sent me this brilliant piece of balanced, unbiased reporting.

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