It’s all in the fingers

alloxan moleculeIt is a pretty structure, isn’t it? It makes you think of something stable, solid, well-linked. […] And it is possible that the explanation is neither remote not metaphysical: to say “beautiful” is to say “desirable” and ever since man has built he has wanted to build at the smallest expense and in the most durable fashion, and the aesthetic enjoyment he experiences in contemplating the work comes afterward. Certainly, it has not always been this way: there have been centuries in which “beauty” was identified with adornment, the superimposed, the frills; but it is probable that they were deviant epochs and that the true beauty, in which every century recognises itself, is found in upright stones, ships’ hulls, the blade of an ax, the wing of a plane.

Primo Levi (on the alloxan molecule), The Periodic Table (Abacus, 1986), p. 179

I write well, but I type hideously. Inefficient, clumsy, tiring. I’ve been working on a word processor since my early teens, and at some point (like Joel with Street Fighter) I settled into a style that was just adequate to my needs and never attempted to get any better. My wrists scrape the edge of the desk. I only use four of my fingers consistently, and can’t even keep to the habit of tapping the space bar with my thumb. It’s possible to type quite fast like this, but never really fast, and certainly not really fast for long periods of time – and really fast is the way in which I need to work.

Peggy Olsen

Between blogging, reviewing, transcriptions and interviews, I have weeks where I’m rattling out over 20,000 words. I work in the evenings, and within school hours one day a week – once I’ve taken into account the watching, reading and listening that goes into this work, it’s obvious that I can only manage this (as well as the emailing, tweeting and gchatting that goes on in an average day) by being competent with a keyboard. And I have other projects I’d like to work on, things which demand more time and more typing. I have realised how right Dan Baum is when he says:

being able to type fast can mean the difference between having good and great interviews to work with, and that teaching oneself to type fast – very fast – is as important to one’s career as a journalist as being well informed or understanding grammar.

WordWork, “Type fast”

But I wonder whether the grotesquery of my typing style has had a formative effect on the pretty solidity of my writing style. When I write, I am always trying to “build at the smallest expense and in the most durable fashion”. I keep my sentences tight, select my words carefully, build up stylistic devices when I know they’re right for the argument or the impression I want to convey, and try to ensure that whatever is published under my name will be resistent to the most stubbornly unsympathetic reader.

Concise, accurate, effective – shouldn’t that be how every writer wants to work? And as  a bad typist, the necessity of avoiding waste is even stronger. I never go substantially over the wordcount in a first draft, because getting the words down in the first place is so tiresome; I make most of my revisions mentally before they hit the page, because re-writing is hard work I’d rather avoid. I am trying to become a better typist so I can be a better journalist, but I hope that in the process I’ll remember everything my sausage fingers have taught me.

© Sarah Ditum 2009

A very dim engagement

A few month before, the racial laws against the Jews had been proclaimed, and I too was becoming a loner. My Christian classmates were civil people; none of them, nor any of the teachers, had directed at me a hostile word or gesture, but I could feel them withdraw and, following an ancient pattern, I withdrew as well: every look exchanged between me and them was accompanied by a miniscule but perceptible flash of mistrust and suspicion. What do you think of me? What am I for you? The same as six months ago, your equal who does not go to mass,or the Jew who, as Dante put it, “in your midst laughs at you”?

Primo Levi, The Periodic Table, p. 40

This evening, the Euro election results for the UK will be announced. The Dutch elections have already seen the far-right PVV become the Netherlands’ second-largest party in the European parliament; now, we wait and see whether our home-grown fascists have gained any Euro seats to go with the three council seats they’ve won.

Any benefit to the BNP means we will definitely be hearing more about engagement. Matthew Goodwin writing in The New Statesman is typical of this line:  “Working-class anxieties over immigration and multiculturalism are often dismissed as bigotry, but concerns run deep,” he writes.

There then follows a barrage of uncontextualised percentages: “60 per cent of Britons feel that there are too many immigrants in Britain”, “80 per cent feel that the government has lied to them about the scale of migration”, “nearly half of voters said they would support policies encouraging migrants to return to their country of origin”, “immigration is brought up by between three and four in every ten respondents in regular MORI polls asking about the most important problems facing the country”. His conclusion? “Put simply, these concerns need to be addressed.”

These aren’t figures about the actual, quantifiable effect of immigration and multiculturalism on the UK. They’re figures about the perceived effect. And where do people derive these perceptions from? A popular media which propagates a constant sense of hostility and anxiety towards non-white, non-Christian groups, and a government which derives its idea of consensus from the opinion pages of the press and vomits up the rhetoric of fear and hate.

It’s possible that when Goodwin and others like him say that the BNP’s arguments must be addressed, what they mean is that the false divisions, abuses of logic and denial of fact given out by the BNP – and echoed, consciously or otherwise, by apparently legitimate bodies – must be addressed, corrected, crushed.

But Goodwin’s piece doesn’t exactly say that. It certainly doesn’t explicitly say at any point that the BNP is a party of racists whose political aspirations are purely anti-democratic. What is says is that “simply bashing the party as ‘Nazi’ no longer works. Voters in some areas are so exasperated with the political Establishment, and so desperate for an alternative, that they don’t care about the party’s extremist credentials.” So, according to Goodwin, writing in the mainstream journal of left-wing party politics, we must address the BNP’s appeal, but it’s pointless to call them racist – so what form is that address supposed to take?

He doesn’t say. But I suspect that “engaging” with the BNP, and yet not calling them for the contemptible and violent bigots they are, is one of the most thoughtless rhetorical steps politicians could take up. It’s the hollow logic of consumerism applied to manifestos, the contemptible drive to expand your party’s appeal, to give the voters something to beckon them into your little marketplace of ideas. Something – even, apparently, listening to witless racism as though it was a set of legitimate concerns.

And you want to attract that sort of voter, so you tolerate that sort of rhetoric rather than calling it what it is, and you let it seep further into the speech of general politics and daily life, and you allow the conditions of mutual mistrust and withdrawal experienced by Levi in 1930s Italy to grow up in Britain, now – yet the simplest thing to do, when faced with arguments of no merit, should be to dismiss them:

And finally, and fundamentally, an open and honest boy, did he not smell the stench of Fascist truths which tainted the sky?  Did he not perceive it as an ignominy that a thinking man should be asked to believe without thinking? Was he not filled with disgust at all the dogmas, all the unproven affirmations, all the imperatives? He did feel it; so then, how could he not feel a new dignity and majesty in our study, how could he ignore the fact that the chemistry and physics on which we fed, besides being in themselves nourishments vital in themselves, were the antidote to Fascism which he and I were seeking, because they were clear and distinct and verifiable at every step, and not a tissue of lies and emptiness, like the radio and newspapers?

The Periodic Table, p. 42

In my daily life, I often feel a gentle Whiggish complacency about my life, the same tendency that gets condemned in Dawkins. I pull the advances of medicine, the welfare state and civil rights around me like a blanket to muffle out the terrible whine of global iniquity, exploitation, bigotry and aggression. But the severest repression and genocide has happened in living memory, in my continent, in nation states that are constituted like the one in which I live. The same beliefs which informed those hateful policies are still extant, and must be answered – not on the terms of their own stupidity and aggression, but on the terms of a better state which prizes knowledge and fairness.