Sunday, 6 April 2008

Flowers, music, furniture and writing...

Municipal parks have municipal flowers,
Woodland plants from woodland bowers
Are better.

I certainly thought that as I walked through one of Canterbury’s very beautifully-tended green spaces on my way home the other day. Though the day was balmy and the air smelled beautifully of hyacinths and primulas all I could think was that they weren’t a patch on the bluebells and primroses in an ancient woodland up the road in Blean.

I like flowers in direct proportion to how wild they are. So I can cope with forget-me-nots but not dahlias, buttercups but not lillies. I know the names of a good number of British wild flowers (aka weeds) but struggle to remember the name of a single garden variety which isn’t ‘tulip’. I like alpine flowers in rockeries (quite wild-looking) but can’t usually remember their names – I think they’re stored in the ‘garden’ bit of my brain which I’ve sub-labelled ‘not worth remembering the names of’.

I’m a bit the same with other things – preferring the simple to the over-elaborate. I like plain furniture without too much decoration; I can see the sheer artistry which has gone into an inlaid, carved and curlicued antique, but it doesn’t appeal to me. I’m more of a Shaker-sympathiser than a Chippendale-enthusiast. I suppose, in a way, I don’t like things which have been interfered with too much – I mean, why do we need blue roses?

I think a lot of horticultural artistry is more a matter of mastery than aesthetics. ‘Look what I can do’, rather than ‘look how beautiful this is’.

My feelings about music are similar. The more producers have had to do with it – on the whole - the less I like it. I prefer the raw emotion involved in a live gig, even if the mistakes and rough edges can’t be edited out later, to the perfection of a sound-levelled, digitally-enhanced, added-tone production. I don’t want echo-effects and people singing in harmony with themselves. If they don’t sound good in the first place, why would I like more of them? I don’t – and this won’t surprise you a bit – like electronic music. It seems to have so little to do with people that I almost fail to recognise it as music at all. I’m not saying I’d prefer to listen to a scratchy, out-of-tune violin or an under-rehearsed choir, but I do prefer my music authentic and performed with all the raw passion people can conjour up. I’d prefer to listen to my boys playing cover-versions with their mates and having a whale of a time than a professional band going through the motions.

And then there’s writing. Where do my rough-hewn, don’t over-produce, leave it as nature intended with lots of passion preferences lead me in terms of my reading and writing habits?

Well, in terms of consumption, on the whole, I’m more of a commercial fiction genre-reader (mostly history and crime) than an enthusiast for literary fiction but that’s not to say that I’m more interested in plot than style. I like my prose to be opaque, by which I mean I don’t want to see straight through the prose to what's being said. I’m not a fan of prose styles which don’t add anything, just let the story do ‘what it says on the tin’ (sorry to non-UK readers - this is a reference to a tv advert which has become a mainstream slang saying meaning ‘does exactly what it’s supposed to do, no more, no less’).

Years ago, I used to do a lot of calligraphy and was advised that the art should always add to the reader’s understanding of what was being read, that just rendering words beautifully wasn’t enough – printing could do that quite adequately. And I suppose I take the same view with prose – it should add something to what you’re reading about, help you see it in a different way, either emotionally, philosophically, psychologically or visually.

Books which I love – a random sample from the top of my head might include The Lollipop Shoes by Joanne Harris, The Hours of the Night by Sue Gee, the book I blogged about last week The Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks, much of Ben Elton’s work – combine a deeply engaging story with prose which is in some way or another outstanding – sparkling, magical in the case of Joanne Harris; lyrical and poetic in the case of Sue Gee; quite brilliantly right for time and place in the case of Geraldine Brooks; witty, pithy and obliquely-truth telling in the case of Ben Elton.

I don’t often stop reading a book because of its prose style – though it has happened – but the books which stick in my mind, the words of whose sentences I will read and re-read because they are so utterly beautiful or precise or perfectly capture some concept, are books where prose style and the ability to tell a great story have come together perfectly.

It’s what I aspire to.

1 comment:

David Isaak said...

I can't say I dislike any flowers, cultivated or wild--but one of the most interesting experiences is to come upon our garden icons in the wild. Everything comes from somewhere.

For example, I ran into wild roses in the mountains of Western China, growing across rocks like, well, weeds. That was startling. But I like cultivated roses, too.

I guess I'm easily pleased.