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Take this book…

‘I came across a magazine with an inscription that said: “Civilisation flourishes when men plant trees under which they themselves will never sit.” But to me it’s not only plants – putting something in somebody’s life, a young person’s life, is the same as planting a tree that you will not cut and sell during your lifetime. That has helped me a lot in my work. Sometimes the more you give, the more you get.’

So says James Barnor, on the wall at the start of his arresting Accra/London retrospective. Indeed, looking at this master photographer’s work, you can see that he gives a great deal of himself to get images that really let the personalities of his subjects shine through.

Walking homewards from the exhibition through Hyde Park, in one of those happy moments of timely connection, I came across a tree bearing books for people to freely pick:

These particular offerings are part of a wider network of sharing, courtesy of The Book Fairies. “Take this book, read it & leave it for the next person to enjoy” says the sticker on each one.

Civilisation does indeed flourish when men plant trees under which they themselves will never sit – and when people plant books on trees for the world to enjoy.

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The ing thing…

In his regular column on the art of persuasion, Sam Leith explores a grammatical construction he calls the “marketing gerund” (AKA present participle): “‘Delivering quality first’ is a BBC Trust slogan. If it sounds like anodyne business-blurb, that may just be the temper of the times: that subjectless “-ing” form of slogan is ever more widely used… Why is it so popular? My hunch is that it is an elegant, if slightly cheesy, way of having your cake and eating it. It puts, right up front in your slogan, a strong and action-filled verb but it also makes it sound almost stative (describing a state of being rather than an action)…an ongoing thing.”

Like all the tools and rules of writing, the ing thing is neither good nor bad. It can be used more or less well and a lot of that comes down to context. But there’s no denying its neat power to free actions from the shackles of a set time and space and in so doing to give your communication a touch of the eternal.

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Vive the free flow of words…

Good to see France’s culture minister Fleur Pellerin advocating greater acceptance of foreign words into the traditionally insular French language. “French is not in danger and my responsibility as minister is not to put up useless barriers against other languages but to give all our citizens the means to make it live on… Certain languages, like English today and Italian in the past, have shown themselves particularly generous in offering French hundreds of new words.”

To support les mots justes from all corners of the linguistic globe – this is quite a volte-face for the home of the Académie Française. But it’s a wise and welcome one, for in languages as in all forms of human exchange – from stocks and shares to stanzas and stories – protectionism is rarely the best long-term strategy.

Vive the free flow of words.

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In defence of chartreuse…

If you want your writing to appeal to a lot of people, keep it simple and emotional.

This is the wise point made by fast rising young writer dude from NY Simon Rich: “I’m trying to connect with as many people as possible so I’d only write about emotions I think billions of us have experienced… When you remove multisyllabic words from your vocabulary, you widen the net. You gain a lot by calling something yellowy-green instead of chartreuse. I don’t know what you have to gain with chartreuse. I haven’t looked up a word since college. If I come to a word and I don’t understand it, to my mind that’s the word’s fault.”

There’s a lot of truth in this, but I’d also advocate a place for chartreuse, not least because it has a very different feel from its admitedly more down to earth but rather ugly sounding relative. Chartreuse conjures a sense of elegance, of lazy hazy sun days at a French chateau. It’s a colour to accompany a champagne cocktail. Yellowy-green by contrast is no nonsense, gutsy, downtown. Stuff the cocktail – give me a double on the rocks.

Same colour; different vibe. The key thing is to be free to pick and choose the right one for your writing.

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On ledgers, lifts…

Major works are afoot at Free Coordinates HQ, which has resulted in my gaining firsthand experience of ledgers, lifts and other weird and wonderful terms from the language of scaffolding. My initial thoughts were that such jargon was far from necessary for the simple matter of fixing poles and boards together to create platforms to work from. But when you consider the need to erect these platforms quickly and safely by fixing the right poles and boards together in the right order and way, the scaffold-speak begins to make sense.

As Hilaire Belloc says in On, an entertaining series of essays on all kinds of things – in this instance, technical words: “a technical word takes the place of long explanation. If you do not use technical words you have to replace them by clumsy, roundabout phrases. You lose your direct effect.”

Yes, technical terms can be effective shortcut language. Yet the principle, as with spelling out a Three Letter Acronym (TLA) the first time you use it, should be to explain the terms once up front. Just as the scaffolders did when I quizzed them. That way, everyone is free to understand should they be interested, as opposed to being excluded for want of clarification.

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Beautiful lies…

If you want to tell the truth, tell tales. Facts alone are not enough – you need fiction. Back in 1861, Charles Reade brought this vividly to life in the opening lines of his novel The Cloister and the Hearth…

“Not a day passes over the earth, but men and women of no note do great deeds, speak great words, and suffer noble sorrows. Of these obscure heroes…the greater part will never be known…their lives and characters lie hidden from nations in the annals that record them. The general reader cannot feel them, they are presented so curtly and coldly…they are not like living breathing stories appealing to the heart…nor can he understand them…for epitomes are not narratives, as skeletons are not human figures… Here, then, the writer of fiction may be of use to the public – as an interpreter…

There is a musty chronicle, written in intolerable Latin, and in it a chapter where every sentence holds a fact. Here is told, with harsh brevity, the strange history of a pair, who lived untrumpeted, and died unsung, four hundred years ago; and lie now, as unpitied, in that stern page, as fossils in a rock. Thus, living or dead, fate is still unjust to them. For if I can but show you what lies below that dry chronicler’s words, methinks you will correct the indifference of centuries, and give those two sore-tried souls a place in your heart – for a day.”

As Charles Reade attests, to free what really matters, what you really want to get across, from the deadweight of dry facts, you need imagination – that flight of the mind that can uncover and convey the hidden meanings, the true messages at the heart of your story.

For fiction is, after all, the truth wrapped up in a beautiful lie.

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True stories travel light…

For psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz, our innermost feelings can only be understood through stories, and the key to storytelling is truthfulness. The kind of truthfulness that brings your stories to life and lets them fly.

“My friend [the poet] Wendy Cope says, ‘Make it more truthful.’ Is this exactly what the patient said? Is that exactly how it was? You have to dig down really deep to make it good – but you’re also after lightness. You don’t want to write about the Oedipus complex, you want to take weight out of the story. That, for me, is what the great writers do… When I taught a course on writing case histories, I discovered that what I felt was true had nothing to do with length. What counted was telling the story so well the reader had the same experience as the writer. I’m not convinced by statistics or page count, I’m convinced by someone who’s been there, got really close, seen what they’ve seen, and can put it across in writing.”

This Lightness of touch forms one of Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millenium. True stories travel light – covering a lot of ground quickly. As the Sicilian saying quoted in Calvino’s chapter on Quickness puts it: “Time takes no time in a story.” Creating the story on the other hand can take a great deal of time and care but it’s always worth it. By digging deep into the truth of a story you can set it free to capture people’s attention and imagination.

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Free-flowing sensual…

The great Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, who has passed away at the grand old age of 104, had a clear sense of what inspired his work and a wonderful way of expressing it.

“I am not attracted to straight angles or to the straight line, hard and inflexible, created by man,” he says in his memoir The Curves of Time. “I am attracted to free-flowing, sensual curves. The curves that I find in the mountains of my country, in the sinuousness of its rivers, in the waves of the ocean, and on the body of the beloved woman.”

Like the best writing, Oscar’s builds vivid images – conjuring with words the warm concrete curves of his architecture.

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Wise words from the man in the 90-year-old lederhosen…

Johannes Gutmann has over the past two decades or so built from scratch a highly successful business based in his home region of Austria marketing organic produce to over 50 countries around the world. Along the way he has become known for sporting the same pair of 90-year-old lederhosen and scarlet shoes pretty much everywhere he does business.

It has been a highly distinctive and memorable bit of brand building. “You just need an idea of how you want to present what you have,” says Johannes. “For example, for someone who sees my lederhosen, they are worth nothing. But they have a high non-material value: they are a story. And that works just as well on the world stage as at a market in the Waldviertel.”

From Austria to Australia, from farming to pharmaceuticals, no matter where in the world you are or what business you’re in – for your brand, stories are priceless.

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Musick to my ears…

Picking up on the apparent importance of knowing your “its” from your “it’s” when applying for jobs, the FT’s Michael Skapinker touches on the lovably liquid nature of English: “English has always changed. It is a permanent referendum. If enough people start regarding “its” as the contraction of “it is” and “it’s” as the possessive then that is what they’ll eventually become and everyone will write them that way.” My money’s on the gradual disappearance of the apostrophe, driven by the evolving influence of texting and other bite-sized digital communications and the power of context to help clarify: it’s often easy to see whether you mean “its” or “it’s” thanks to the surrounding words, which in turn makes the mark less necessary.

As with punctuation, so with spelling. We now happily write “music” rather than “musick”, as in Samuel Johnson’s day. Three centuries on, music’s notes haven’t changed but its spelling has. That’s fine with me.  In line with the inherently democratic character of my mother tongue, I’m happy to let the people decide, over time through their usage and abusage, how they want English to evolve. For one of the great good things is that we’re free to use our language clearly and characterfully for our own ends.

In this respect, I’m on the side of Michael Skapinker’s “affectivists” – a term “conjured out of Sir Ernest Gower’s book, The Complete Plain Words, which remains a superb guide to clear communication nearly 60 years after it was first published. The aim of writing, he said, should be to affect your readers in the way you wish them to be affected.” Musick to my ears.

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Let your imagination fly…

There’s a magic at the heart of many of the best stories. A magic that draws you into their world and takes you where they want you to go.

Take the Arabian Nights, where for centuries we have stepped out of our daily lives into a world where we happily fly magic carpets, follow genies and sail the Seven Seas with Sinbad.

Marina Warner, Professor of Literature, Film and Theatre Studies at the University of Essex and author of Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights, talks of “the atmosphere of enchantment, of wonder, that is very specific to the book. There is a sense of a kind of endlessly emancipated imagination. You don’t feel that you need to observe any of the coordinates of ordinary life. The stories are simply asking you to let your imagination fly.”

An invitation many of us find irresistible.

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The value of English…

While over a billion people have Mandarin Chinese as their first language the number for English is less than 400 million. Yet what my mother tongue lacks in volume it more than makes up for in value.

“Measured in billions of pounds, Chinese is ‘worth’ four hundred and forty-eight billion, Russian eight hundred and one, German one thousand and ninety, Japanese one thousand two hundred and seventy billion, English four thousand two hundred and seventy-one. English is the buyers’ and sellers’ language, the stock language of the market,” says Melvyn Bragg in his enlightening study The Adventure of English.

“And English is the first language among equals at the United Nations, at NATO, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund. It is the only official language of OPEC, the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the only working language of the European Free Trade Association, the Association of Baltic Marine Biologists, the Asian Amateur Athletics Association, the African Hockey Federation…while it is the second language of bodies as diverse as the Andean Commission of Jurists and the Arab Air Carriers Association.” English is in short the world’s language of choice when it comes to sharing ideas and information across countries and cultures. The ultimate international language. The language of connection.

So what’s the source of its power? The value of English lies less in its political, economic or historical associations than in its inherently open and evolving character. English is freely adopted around the world and happily adapted and enriched by all who embrace it, with new words and turns of phrase being added all the time – from bamboozle to bishy barny bee, from wig wag to wiki. In so doing, this eminently lovable language grows in value with the world.

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On essays and free spirits…

In a world awash with doomy gloomy news, the Guardian’s In praise of… column offers a daily dose of thoughtful sunniness – 200 words or so of positive take on all kinds of more or less topical subjects.

Subjects such as the essay: “…an intensely personal and conversational genre which is the preferred literary mode of free spirits… The best essays, like George Orwell’s, are tough but not fanatical, delight in the commonplace and ambiguous and can see the world as easily in a ham sandwich as a morning rose.” Much like the In praise of… pieces themselves – which to my eyes are in many ways mighty fine essays in miniature.

So here’s to essays, free spirits, and In praise of…

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Sunny free range people…

I came across this rather fine job ad on the window of the Flat Planet cafe, Great Marlborough Street, the other day. Ironically on the site of a former AN Other Coffee Chain, it struck me as a refreshingly engaging alternative to the cookie cutter communication of cappuccino corporations.