Miscellaneous, Rhetoric

A first year in blogging; a retrospective

This blog was created by me twelve months ago. Re-reading the posts now, they cover some diverse oddities: boxing, nail polish and Dada, the First World War, excrement, post-war Paris bebop, burnt manuscripts and the severed head of a regicide, a urinal, Hitler’s bath and Leica cameras. What possessed me in my mid 40s to start writing for the first time? Why am I despatching these absurd contemplations out into the world?

Writing is a way of preserving words that would otherwise perish. I am a criminal barrister and my words have been hitherto deployed onto the air. It has been the spoken not the written word that I have been struggling to master. (Some readers have sensed an oral declamatory rhythm to my written posts.) There is a beauty in the perishability and impermanence of words that fall from the tongue, but an unexpected urge to capture them had, for me, recently materialised.

The second reason for writing was to open up a space that was outside my normal narrative flow at home and at work. The law courts have a standard narrative structure: the dominant prosecution case as interrupted and disturbed by the defence. These stories can be fascinating and have a pulsating rhythm, but they are repetitive. Discussion within my family can have a certain circularity. The blog has become a space for language to move in a different direction; for words to flow out and for words to flow back in return, through interesting channels.

As an insatiable reader books pile up in my study, some lying reproachfully unread on my bookshelves (see Tsundoku, July 2014). One problem has been that each new book I read involved the cramming of extraneous material into my already overloaded head. Saturation point had been reached. The act of writing has forced me to articulate ideas, which has had the effect of opening up space for thinking. Several of these posts are reflections on some of the books I have read during the year: The Silence of Animals, Atomised, Zizek’s Jokes, The Master and Margarita. Writing has been a way of disgorging the confused mess in my head, an act of disburdenment as much as expression.

The final reason for starting this blog was the anniversary of the start of hostilities of the First World War. There has been, to my mind, a lot of sentimental guff published about the war during this anniversary. I wanted to commemorate those who refused to fight and sought to avoid the conflict, a class of people usually regarded without honour. In that contrary spirit I wrote of the merits of Arthur Cravan (English), Henri-Pierre Roche (French) and George Grosz (German), men who showed the courage needed not to fight.

Although the topics do appear random, there is a question that lies unwritten behind all my posts. It is for me the key question in a post religious age: what does it mean to be human? In my attempt to examine it I have developed a prose style that has been formed by my temper: ironic not angry, tolerant not moralising, playful not didactic, laconic not prolix. I recognise that this approach is counter to the dynamics of social media reaction: it does not make for a good twitter storm. If that is so, it is deliberately so. There are plenty of other blogs out there to cater for the over-reacting, condemnatory, shrill moralism that our society so badly needs.

A further stylistic aim has been an attempt to make the complex simple and the simple complex. There is a small paradox here. One task is to unpack the hidden complex ideas behind the over simplistic. Another task is to plainly explain complex ideas by clearing obfuscation and excluding extraneous and confused thinking. My guides have been Susan Sontag, Terry Eagleton, Roger Scruton and Christopher Hitchens, non-fiction prose writers I have been reading for many years. They write clearly and joyously and stylishly about complex ideas (mainly literature and art). They have taught me, among other things, the merits of using particulars to illuminate the general and (with care) how to use the general to explain the particular. Difficult though it is, this is a stylistic ideal I have striven to meet.

Finally, if there is a political theme lurking behind these posts, it is that writers should be free to write and publish as they see fit without constraint. Freedom of expression is paramount in a free society. Freedom from censorship, from threats of libel, from authoritarian governments, from moralising internet storms, from charges of blasphemy and slander, from police threat, from those claiming to be ‘offended’. Bad opinions, bad ideas and bad arguments can be challenged, exposed to ridicule, closely examined, laughed at, rejected, but it is always a mistake for them to be suppressed. The words wrongly attributed to Voltaire are the key ones here: “I do not agree with what you say, but I will defend to my death your right to say it”. Words written and published freely are a defence against authoritarianism, it is a fight that must be won each day afresh. This is my very modest contribution to that fight.

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