For the past couple of days I have been distracted by the latest collection of writing from the man the New Statesman calls ‘the most accomplished essayist at work in Britain today’ – Clive James. In The Revolt of the Pendulum he demonstrates once again the ease with which he moves around his subjects, whether they are from popular culture, academic obscurity, or somewhere in between. It’s when examining the use of language though, his own and that of others, that he is at his most entertaining and illuminating, two qualities which the best teachers realised long ago often go hand-in-hand.
In ‘Insult to the Language’ James argues that the quality of English prose writing is deteriorating rapidly, especially in the ‘quality’ British journals, through a combination of bad grammar and general ignorance, especially of the origins of many everyday expressions or metaphors. ‘Usually when a metaphor slithers into imprecision, it is because the activity from which it was drawn is no longer current practice’, he writes. ‘Nobody gets the picture, because there is no longer a picture to be got.’ One example he offers is the expression ‘shot himself in the foot’, which originated from the desperate act of some soldiers in the First World War who believed that the self-inflicted wounds would exempt them from further action. Almost a hundred years later, the original association is almost lost, so that ‘shot himself in the foot’ has come to suggest clumsiness rather than cowardice.
In another of the essays, ‘John Bayley’s Daily Bread’, the author talks about ‘those desperate commentators, omnipresent now in our multiple media outlets, who must always advance an outlandish opinion because they don’t write well enough to make a reasonable opinion interesting.’ Ever mindful of avoiding the same mistake himself, he steps back from the precipice of outlandish opinion to offer the reasonable opinion, a practice that anyone learning or teaching the art of discursive writing would do well to observe:
‘The language has always changed, so to protest looks reactionary. If there were no reactionaries, however, deterioration would become galloping decay. In reality decay does not gallop, but we all know what a horse is even if we have not ridden one, so everyone realises, so far, that ‘galloping’ is being used metaphorically. When all the horses have gone, ‘galloping’ will just mean ‘rapid’…….The typical prose of the present has no past. Whether it has a future remains to be seen.’