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Word up

The Oxford English Dictionary is asking for people the world over to vote for their most disliked word. It’s an interesting exercise as I imagine more people will be able to come together over what they don’t like than what they do. But after thinking and discussing this a little, I think people select words they don’t like for broader reasons than for words they do like.

Here. OED have already put forward some frontrunners. ‘Moist’ is one. In New Zealand, ‘phlegm’ is another. I don’t mind either but it’s clear they are disliked because of the wider context they’re used in. OED predict ‘cancer’ will be up there, for obvious reasons.

I examined my own disliked words. Aside from corporate jargon (action as a verb, going forward and so on) I cited ‘awesome’, ‘guys’, ‘zeitgeist’, and ‘gifting’. I immediately offended a friend who uses three of those regularly. But when I explained my reasons, it was clear it wasn’t the words that was the problem, it was the context I objected to.

‘Awesome’ is overused and overwhelmingly signals a state of mind I cannot get on with. It often sounds false to me, a marketing trick. The Lego movie made this point well for me. Everything was not awesome.

‘Guys’ is something you often hear when being herded in a crowd, security guards at gigs, people asking you to queue differently. It’s chummy. It’s used when they want to appear approachable but firm. It’s like those adverts where they encourage you to find out more about the product by calling their salesperson, who only has a first name and mobile number. They think it’s informal and friendly. I’m an introvert and I will barely call people I know on their mobile. There is no way I’ll call a complete stranger and call them by their first name on their mobile. Referring to me as ‘guys’ is part of this. I think it’s also my middle aged curmudgeonliness that dislikes it. My offended friend is younger than me, and nicer.

‘Zeitgeist’ I only dislike because a colleague I disliked in a previous job used it a lot in an attempt to appear more intellectual than he really was. It’s a good word. He was a wanker.

‘Gifting’ is a corporate hangover from working at Waterstone’s. The early gifting period, they said, or as normal people know it, October.

Conversely when I thought of words I do like, I like them in the main because of the way they sound. ‘Twilight’, ‘beguiling’, ‘haberdashery’. They all sound beautiful. There is no word I like because of its context and none that I dislike because of the sound.

It’s our usage that we dislike, the context and meaning. Liking things gives us more luxury to listen without the baggage. Or it does for me, anyway.

April reads

It seems a long month. But a nice range of books this month. I even ventured briefly into non-fiction.

The Year of Living Danishly – Helen Russell

After so many war books last month I couldn’t face something serious to start the month so I decided to read about Denmark instead. This is an Englishwoman abroad, as Helen Russell’s husband lands his dream job at Lego. She is a magazine writer living a hectic life and they are trying to conceive a baby. I found this quite interesting, partly as I’d like to go to Denmark, but also because I’m nosy about other people’s lives, but my god she was whiny! She expressed surprise that living in a different country was indeed different to living in London and didn’t seem to let up at all. Even a year living in a warm house by the sea was something she complained about. Eventually, thank god, she relaxes and seems to adjust, but there must be better ways of writing about Denmark than this.

A God in Ruins – Kate Atkinson

I always forget how difficult I find Atkinson’s books to get into. It always takes me a while to remember why I like her. This has been lauded, but I didn’t like it as much as the last one (and I found the last one tough too, probably because of the amount of child death in the first 50 pages…) The parts about Bomber Command are masterful and absorbing to read – the interview with Atkinson at the end states that this was her focus – but the other parts are interesting, if nothing else. The generational gap is well observed, but the daughter character is utterly ghastly and so when the ‘twist’ comes, it’s not as gut wrenching as when McEwan did the same thing in Atonement. (That’s the closest I can come to a spoiler.)

The Invention of Wings – Sue Monk Kidd

This month’s reading group choice was a chance to delve into someone else’s history for a while, and so we leap straight into slave-holding South Carolina. An eleven-year old girl Sarah is given a slave for her birthday and immediately tries to free her. When this fails, she teaches her to read instead, ensuring that the two women will always be joined despite the separations and trials that the years bring. This is the fictionalised story of Sarah Grimke, an abolitionist, and is told in alternate chapters with the completely fictional life of her slave Hetty. I enjoyed the slave chapters more, mainly as Sarah’s character seemed flittery and annoying.It may also be my liberal squeamishness but I dislike these ‘white people discover how awful slavery was’ books (The Help was another.) Having said all that, it’s pretty good.

On Helwig Street – Richard Russo

Russo is one of my favourite authors of all time so this tale of growing up with a mother who was mentally unstable is fascinating, if only to try and spot where his influences and ideas come from. But my goodness, it’s also a hard read. It’s partly because his mother is, I think, mostly undiagnosed for most of her life, so had she been born later, there may have been more help available for her. And you also see how much of a toll looking after her is on Russo and his family. You do also get to examine the power of memory, or not, and again, being a bit nosy, I like to find out more about someone I admire so much.

Summer of 76 – Isabel Ashdown

After the Second World War, slavery and mental illness, some light reading was required and this did the job. Summer of 76 features the heatwave, swinging and some teenagers stuck on the Isle of Wight. In some places I felt it could have done with a spot of editing, but on the whole it’s a nice beach read type book.

American Housewife – Helen Ellis

Like the look of this one.

The Writes of Woman

The women of American Housewife tell their stories in tales that range from between a page and forty pages in length. Some, anonymously, tell us about themselves:

I shred cheese. I berate a pickle jar. I pump the salad spinner like a CPR dummy. I strangle defrosted spinach and soak things in brandy. I casserole. I pinwheel. I toothpick. I bacon. I iron a tablecloth and think about eating lint from the dryer, but then think better of that because I am sane.

Others give instructions about the ‘Southern Lady Code’, ‘How to Be a Grown-Ass Lady and ‘How to Be a Patron of the Arts’, the latter seemingly a guide to Ellis herself as much as to the reader.

The first real gem in the collection, ‘The Wainscotting War’, is told entirely through emails between two neighbours in an apartment building. Beginning with passive-aggressive lines: I’ve returned your basket…

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Street scene – for Write Around Town

This is an exercise in preparation for the Write Around Town online writing course which I have just embarked on. Draw a map of any street you know well and then write about it. 

This is not a destination street. It’s an “on the way to somewhere else” street. Leading from the Market Square, the centre of town, the focus of the city and down to the destination shopping streets how could it fare in the face of old ladies wanting Marks, the young after bargains in Topshop and H&M? It wasn’t always like this, but then the men’s clothing store moved premises, the bookshop closed and the record emporium went into administration. Opportunity and convenience took their place, leaving perhaps one shop that people make a beeline for but the rest sit, hoping to attract with window offers, impulse buys and luck. Their windows reflect this. Browse the holiday deals, the latest house on the market, the special offers on bags, purses, necklaces, watches.

The girl handing out flyers for the beauty treatments knows this. She’s not putting much effort into her role, standing passively, not smiling in case it cracks her foundation, not talking to people as they go by, just pushing the flyer out in front of her in case they take pity and grab it. I bet she didn’t think this task would take so long.

The passers-by are diverse, young and old, workers at lunch, shoppers, students, retirees, young mums. Some take a leaflet, glance at it and shove it in their handbags. No one litters, they’re too polite. Later some of them may recycle or the leaflet will live in the depths of their bag, softening at the creases, gathering crumbs and fraying until they pull it out one day, not remembering how it got there.

The pavement is wide and interspersed with trees. A few are losing their leaves and scattering them on the ground but not many. It’s early yet, many leaves are still green. Look up and you get a contrast in architectural styles – on one side, an attractive row of (possibly Georgian?) buildings housing offices, on the other a Sixties behemoth dropped in to obliterate the old Moot Hall that once stood there. The window frames of the behemoth sport pigeon spikes, collecting dust and leaves. The pigeons are unperturbed, trying their luck below instead, pecking between the slabs and stones. Sandwich boards and street furniture line the pavement sides, flower arrangements left over from the summer sit alongside benches where older people have a rest and workers grab a sandwich before returning to their air conditioned desks. The phone booth is rarely used.

The road is closed to traffic except taxis. Once in a while you get a lost soul, having taken a wrong turn, peering at the signs from behind their steering wheel, or someone defiant in grabbing a shortcut, impatient at the zebra crossing. The taxis line the side of the road, black beetles with drivers slumped over a red top while they wait, or taking turns to pop into the back of each other’s cabs for a chat.

I know this street. I watch it as I sit with my Americano, having been greeted as a regular by the barista, and I sit and scribble for a while each lunchtime. I like its transient feel, the constant foot traffic, the attempts to brighten it. Things could happen here.

Diary entry: a rainy Monday morning

The bus is late and the heavens, not content with soaking us for the last three days, have yet more rain to offer. I don’t usually work Mondays but I have non-negotiable training today and a trip to Birmingham awaits. When it turns up, the damp bodies and gloomy atmosphere make the crowding seem worse. I head upstairs, inadvertently step on someone’s foot (he apologises, as do I) and stand staring at a man who reluctantly moves his bag from the seat so I can sit down.

I left them behind at home, safe and dry in the warmth and light. As we pull away I am engulfed by a feeling of longing for them both. I wonder how mad he would think I was if I called him up, 10 minutes after I left the house, to tell him I missed them?

I walk fast to the railway station, marvelling at the number of women who thought it was sensible to wear ballet pumps or canvas shoes this morning. A generation with trench foot. Or perhaps they have webbed feet and don’t notice.

The train is blessedly not crowded. We scatter, one person per table, per duo of seats, and enjoy a feeling of relief that we’ve made it on time and can now relax for 90 minutes. But our reveries are interrupted by tinny music from a phone, no earphones. I look up, British to the core, glare my annoyance and go back to my reading. I look up again, a woman is also looking. She gets up and walks down the carriage.

She starts politely: “is that your phone ringing?”

“It’s music,” he says.

“Do you have headphones?” She continues.

“Why?”

“Well, it’s annoying.”

“What?” She suddenly looks very alone standing there and I am conscious that she is wearing a headscarf. For some reason I get nervous that something is about to kick off. I rise above my usual timidity and pop my head up.

“It is a distraction,” I say.

“Oh right,” he replies and turns the phone off. She sits down and I turn to smile at her and offer my thanks.

The view from the window does nothing to alleviate my feelings of separation from my girl. We pass a farm with a large flock of geese, grazing on the lawn. She’d love to see them. A woman leads a horse out to a paddock and birds fly overhead, forming a net rippling across the clouds.

 

Writing advice often mentions keeping a diary. This will be an occasional entry on this blog.