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This isn’t new, but it’s certainly entertaining and deserves a wider audience. The quiet carriage on the train isn’t a refuge, says the author Geoff Dyer; it’s “a crime scene waiting to happen”.
A week or so ago I heard the BBC’s political editor say that “We now have 27 leaders sat around a table…”
This week I heard a BBC reporter say that “the two-year-old was sat watching television.”
In John Lanchester’s novel Capital, I’ve just read the sentence “Shahid was stood at the sink with his arms folded.”
Why is the present participle increasingly making itself absent?
And here are the images from that last roll, which went up on McCurry’s site a few days ago:
What would you photograph if you were using the last roll of Kodachrome ever made?
Here’s how Steve McCurry made his choices:
I’ve just come back from browsing in Waterstone’s in Wimbledon, where copies of George Orwell’s essay Politics and the English Language were stacked beside the tills.
It’s coming up to 110 years since Orwell was born as Eric Blair (June 25), and, because media organisations like round numbers, he and his works are being celebrated (in a series on Radio 4), reissued (by Penguin) and reappraised — by Steven Poole, for example, in The Guardian.
Poole recently described Politics and the English Language as “the most wildly overrated of any of [Orwell’s] writings. Much of it is the kind of nonsense screed against linguistic pet hates that anyone today might compose in a green-text email to the newspapers.”
It’s true that some of Orwell’s directions to writers on words and phrases to avoid seem to be founded on little more than personal prejudice. True, too, that journalists of my generation have sometimes been slavish in unquestioningly following those directions. But that doesn’t mean that Orwell is a bad guide.
Orwell said that writers should never use the passive voice where they can use the active. “No good reason is offered or indeed imaginable for always avoiding the passive,” says Poole. Really? Orwell had illustrated earlier in his essay, by wringing the blood from a Bible passage and turning it into bureaucratic English, how much more forceful the active voice is than the passive. Maybe “never” is a little too strong, but surely the active voice is generally to be preferred in most forms of writing. Which of the following, for example, is more powerful?
It is the national expectation that all service personnel will discharge their tasks to a satisfactory performance level.
England expects that every man will do his duty.
Neither the sentence nor the fleet would have survived if Nelson had uttered the former.
Orwell also urged writers never to use “a long word where a short one will do”. Why ever not, asks Poole. Again, isn’t it obvious? Considerations of rhythm will prompt you from time to time to favour long over short, but if your intention is to say what you mean as clearly, as vividly and as concisely as possible, you’ll surely do it better with “conjuring” than “prestidigitation”.
If anything, the argument for short over long is more compelling these days, when so much is being read on screens and readers are tempted with countless other distractions. If they can’t take in at a glance what a writer is saying, they’ll click on something else.
Isn’t it odd, incidentally, that so much of what we’re presented with on the internet, which is still a youthful medium, reads as though it were hammered out on a typewriter for publication in a tabloid newspaper of the 1970s? Or maybe it isn’t. There would be fewer appearances of such phrases as “electric atmosphere”, “hostage to fortune” and “meteoric rise”, fewer recommendations of a book as ‘unputdownable”, if bloggers, writers and editors paid more attention to the first and most useful of Orwell’s half-dozen rules. It says: “Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.”
A writer should not expect a reader to join in the writing.
Clive James, in his Telegraph television review slot this week, lamenting the sloppiness of modern scriptwriting.
My book of 2012? It was one published in 2006, which I discovered at Delhi airport on my way back from a trip to the Himalayas in October: Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra (published in India by Penguin and in Britain by Faber).
It’s a plump (950 pages) and populous novel set primarily in Mumbai, a story of cops and gangsters that’s also a story of India itself, ranging from Partition up to 21st-century terrorism and taking in religion, politics, the caste system and Bollywood. You can learn quite a bit of Hindi from its pages, too, though not necessarily of the sort you ought to use in polite company.
I tell everyone who goes to Mumbai to read Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City and Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance. Now I’ve got another “must” to add to the list.
The best thriller I read this year was The Twelve by Stuart Neville. It has the narrative drive of a train. Indeed, I got so carried away by it on the way in to work one morning that I forgot to change trains. It’s a story of a post-Troubles Northern Ireland and an IRA man haunted by those he has killed. The reformed criminal is a familiar figure in crime fiction; Neville’s skill is to arouse sympathy for a man who hasn’t yet done with killing.
Having finished with Sacred Games, which had left no room for any other fiction for a couple of months, I’ve read over the past couple of days Neville’s equally strong sequel to The Twelve, Collusion (which seemed remarkably timely following the publication of the report into the death of the solicitor Pat Finucane). Now I’m looking forward to Dead Souls and to his latest, Ratlines. Neville’s becoming as dependable on Belfast and the North as James Lee Burke is on New Orleans and Louisiana.
In non-fiction, I’ve already singled out The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane.
I also enjoyed The Robber of Memories: A River Journey Through Colombia by Michael Jacobs (Granta), a regular contributor to Telegraph Travel. The robber of memories is a mythical figure who is said to arrive on horseback by night in Colombia. The phrase also makes for a graphic description of dementia, which afflicts the author’s mother as he sets off to travel the length of the country’s longest river, the Magdalena. In this moving book, part memoir, part travelogue, Jacobs encounters both tale-spinning sailors and gun-toting guerrillas, and as he nears the river’s source enters a world “on the boundaries of reason”.
I’m compiling a rough list of my favourite books about railway journeys for the Telegraph’s new rail portal. In the process, I searched a few other lists and came across Booked on the Morning Train by George F Scheer III (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1991), which will certainly be among them.
I had never heard of Mr Scheer, who (according to the dust jacket) has written several travel guides and hosts a jazz show on radio in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. If he’s as good on jazz as he is on trains and America, I’d love to hear his show.
He spent a month and a half riding the rails with Amtrak, “simply to see what travel by train was like in our time in this country, where trains have been, admittedly, so much debased recently and are so often vilified”. His book is keenly observed and beautifully written. I’m halfway through, a point at which he says he hasn’t “found any purpose, any theme”. I don’t care — he’s still great company; the sort of man, indeed, that you’d be happy to find yourself sitting next to on the train.
Among newer books, Around India in 80 Trains by Monisha Rajesh (Nicholas Brealey), which has already featured in Telegraph Travel, was a sprightly addition to the literature of railway travel on the subcontinent.
My picture book of the year: Desert Air by George Steinmetz (Abrams). Steinmetz has spent the past 15 years photographing, from a motorised hang glider, deserts throughout the world: from the Gobi to the Sahara, from the dry valleys of Antarctica to the icy summits of the Andes. His pictures, of subjects from sun-worshippers to salt pans, offer a view that’s both aerial and intimate at the same time. The stories of how he acquired those pictures are equally good: he has smuggled his glider into Libya, been arrested in Iran and crashed into a tree in China. “I can be stubborn,” he says, “and when it came to the pursuit of my hyperarid obsession, I did not accept ‘no’ as an answer”. If you’re lucky enough to find yourself in New York before March 3, you can see his show — and hang glider — at the Anastasia Photo gallery.
The recommendations of the Leveson Inquiry all had to do with making newspapers behave better. But newspapers — at least in their current form — are not going to be around for very much longer. Nothing illustrated that better than the London Evening Standard’s splash on Leveson in its “West End Final” edition last Thursday, the morning the inquiry’s report was published.
Like many people working that day, I got my first news of Leveson online at my desk. It was press day, so I didn’t escape for a sandwich until about 2.15pm. I picked up a copy of the Standard on my way back to the office, around 2.30. Now, the Standard is one of the more nimble of newsprint operations, but after a morning’s saturation reporting of Leveson online, the paper’s coverage looked like an admission of defeat. In a desperate attempt to look ahead of the news, the Standard began: “David Cameron was at the centre of a storm tonight as the Leveson report split the Coalition…” Then, in the fourth paragraph, came an admission that the paper had had to go to press before the report had landed: “Lord Justice Leveson was expected to call…”
In a little panel with the splash was an unnecessary reminder to “get the latest as it happens” on the Standard’s website.
Artemis Cooper, author of the much-praised new biography of Patrick Leigh Fermor, will be among speakers at a celebration of the great man’s travel writing at King’s College London next Tuesday (November 20).
My wife and I limbered up for a trek in the Himalayas at the start of this month with a few climbs and descents of Box Hill, “Surrey’s little Alp”. We went back yesterday. It seemed to have shrunk a bit, but it’s still a pleasant place to while away a Sunday afternoon. If it doesn’t quite provide the sort of spectacle you have from a tent at 3,000 metres in Uttarakhand, it’s a great vantage point over the South Downs. So why did an eccentric army major, who used to go to the hill to meditate, insist on being buried there head downwards? No one’s entirely sure.
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Peter Pomerantsev wins the @RSLiterature Ondaatje Prize for Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible.