Aimlessly surfing the ether, I came across a few pictures of sand.
I’m not usually impressed by sand, unless it’s white, stretches forever besides a deep blue sea and I have a tequila in my hand. My only recent encounter with the brownish variety was when I re-pointed the massive gritstones of my Derbyshire cottage and the requirement for mortar demanded I find some. As a teenager, I vaguely remember sand being somewhat of a hazard when entertaining young ladies under the starlit pier of Blackpool beach. Not as many as I would have liked, but sufficient for a young fellow with too much hair and a wallet in which spiders had made a small township.
But this was no ordinary sand.
Rather it was ordinary sand, but it didn’t look like ordinary sand.
That’s what I call sand. I could not believe it was sand, but it was. Crafted by extraordinary artists with talents beyond belief.
Then, I came across a few pencil drawings.
These are pencil drawings. Not photographs. Again I was staggered by the precision and beauty of the work.
But, what impressed me the most was the way that each of these art objects told a story without words and using the humblest of materials. Yes, I know a picture is worth a thousand words and all that stuff, but when is a word worth a thousand pictures? When is it impossible for a story to be told in any medium but words?
My immediate answer was Dickens. In ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, how could the opening words be shown in pictures?
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
I used to be a filmmaker and could not have shown the mental picture that this phrase conjures without making a movie using many thousands of frames to do so. Maybe a better filmmaker could do it, but I could not do justice to the expanse of the idea. What images, sounds or thoughts does that sentence create for you? Children in the workhouse whilst finely dressed ladies promenade in Regent’s Park? Or much more than those simple images? Which brought me on to neologisms, or made up words to describe something new for which there is currently no name or, more loosely, to describe the indescribable.
James Joyce was famous for the neologisms in Finnegans Wake (1939), which no doubt effectively prevented the book from reaching a wider audience, but to me are a delight of the English language. Alice in Wonderland, The Hunting of the Snark, A Clockwork Orange, most SF (John Brunner’s Stand On Zanzibar is a good example) and many Fantasy novels (Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels and the Harry Potter stories as examples) are all laden with neologisms.
How could a single picture describe a ‘fargobawler’, a ‘mega-phogg’ or ‘hippohobbilies’?
Yet, if one reads Finnegans Wake and pays attention (not easy) images spring to mind with reckless abandon, but not always the same ones. I seem to remember that a ‘fargobawler’ is a cargo-hauler, but as for the other two…
And how about “Who ails tongue coddeau, aspace of dumbillsilly?” If one examines it closely, it is French. “Ou est ton cadeau, espece d’imbecile?” or “Where is your gift, you imbecile?” To me, these are lovely words winnowed from the mind of one of the greatest writers in the English language. To others, well, perhaps they are gibberish and maybe they are right to think so, but I have to admit I love anything that anglicises the French language.
I don’t want to get too academic about this, but words are as beautiful as pictures and in some cases more powerful. For instance, when we think of the word ‘sad’ it will conjure a million different images depending upon our personal experiences of ‘sad’. When an artist paints a picture of ‘sad’ it is usually a picture taken from the artist’s experience and (usually) cannot compete with the personal experiences of the observer. Of course, great art can chime with an individual’s experience and elicit intellectual or emotional responses.
I remember an iconic picture taken from the Vietnam war at Trảng Bàng of a small child running naked down a road away from the napalm. She had removed her burning clothes. It was taken by Nick Ut, a brilliant photographer who was in the right place at the right time with the right vision. It won a Pulitzer Prize. For me, the picture precisely encapsulated the war. Look at the child on the far left, see the expression on his face. Look at the soldiers calmly walking away. Words are superfluous.
So, does any of this amount to more than a hill of beans? Maybe not. Pictures are powerful and so are words. Words and pictures together can be the most powerful. Stating the obvious, I know.
What really impresses me is the creativity inherent in both. The ability of human beings to reveal their souls and illustrate the stripped-down essence of an idea in a few lines of prose, a single frame or a solitary piece of artwork is astonishing. I know it’s not new, but the sand reminded me because I had forgotten and become lost in the current idea that marketing is a substitute for good writing. The greatest amongst us can find that essence. The rest of us can simply try to discover the best we can be, with the tools at our disposal.
But, occasionally we can all touch the face of God, if only briefly. Perhaps that’s why we write, or paint or create anything that we absolutely must create. Of course, we might do it for a whole host of other less laudable reasons, but even in the heart of the foulest hack I believe there lurks the soul of a poet.
I had to include a piece from Finnegans Wake (no apostrophe). If you have never read the book, see how you get on with it and let me know. It’s free here.
“But so sore did abe ite ivvy’s holired abbles, (what with the wallhall’s horrors of rolls-rights, carhacks, stonengens, kisstvanes, tramtrees, fargobawlers, autokinotons, hippohobbilies, streetfleets, tournintaxes, mega-phoggs, circuses and wardsmoats and basilikerks and aeropagods and the hoyse and the jollybrool and the peeler in the coat and the mecklenburk bitch bite at his ear and the merlinburrow bur-rocks and his fore old porecourts, the bore the more, and his blightblack workingstacks at twelvepins a dozen and the noobi-busses sleighding along Safetyfirst Street and the derryjellybies snooping around Tell–No-Tailors’ Corner and the fumes and the hopes and the strupithump of his ville’s indigenous romekeepers, homesweepers, domecreepers, thurum and thurum in fancymud murumd and all the uproor from all the aufroofs, a roof for may and a reef for hugh butt under his bridge suits tony) wan warning Phill filt tippling full. His howd feeled heavy, his hoddit did shake. (There was a wall of course in erection) Dimb! He stot-tered from the latter. Damb! he was dud.”
ps: When I say ‘God’, that can be what you take it to mean and not necessarily an ‘old dude with long white hair’, as a teenage neighbour’s son remarked. He believed this to be the truth. And he might be right. Or not. See my upcoming novel for an absolutely accurate explanation of ‘God’, or lack of it.