Yabba Dabba Doo                                                                                                                                         1st May 2013

Now, not content with having created a society which is moving towards the idea that grammar is the deceased maternal grandparent of language, and therefore no longer relevant, we’ve decided to enshrine the inarticulacy of the times in an anthology.  The New Penguin Book of Quotations has decided that the boring wisdom of the past will have to make room for the hip and happening statements of the present.  The two biggest casualties are the Bible and the works of Shakespeare.  Both have had their previously massive contributions cut by more than half, which means well over 1,000 references have been excised.  A spokesman for the publishers has said: “This brings together 8,000 of the pithiest and most telling quotations of recent times.  What they have in common is the power to entertain or intrigue or shock, and to shed light on the very varied attitudes and concerns that have shaped the past decades.”

That sounds fair enough. I've often thought that a book of quotations from the lyrics of Popular music in the last century say, could be an interesting and rewarding thing to have. The area must be a diamond mine of great lines' - illuminating, funny, haunting. But surely the one thing you'd have to take down the mine with you would be some sense of discrimination. Otherwise, how would you know what to keep and what to leave where it is? It will be helpful, for example, if the words actually reverberate with some kind of meaning.

This is a cavil which seems not to have unduly troubled the compilers. Consider these: "Yabba Dabba Doo," "Very, very drunk," "I'll tell you what I want, what I really, really want."  The erudite modernists among us will recognise immediately the sources of these powerful and timeless utterances.  They come from Fred Flintstone, Rowley Birkin, QC, of The Fast Show, and the Spice Girls.

I find myself wondering darkly which quotations from the Bible or Shakespeare these words of current wisdom may have supplanted. I hope it wasn't "Better is a dinner of herbs where love is than a stalled ox and hatred therewith," or "Are there no stones in heaven but what serve for the thunder?" or "Friendship is constant in all other things/Save in the office and affairs of love,” or ... But rest, rest, perturbed spirit, before an apoplexy comes.
What I'm getting at is the total gibberish of these contemporary quotations. They mean nothing except that they were pointlessly uttered in our time. You might as well include: "I'll have a pound of mince and two lamb chops, please." (Mrs Morrison at the butcher's).

Who would ever want to look up this kind of crap? And if they did, what would it tell them? Nothing, unless perhaps to let them say to themselves, "Oh, I know where that comes from." In other words, it can only confirm them in the complacent narrowness of their own time. It can't extend beyond it. What is the point of a dictionary of quotations except that it might contain words that relate to times beyond their own? Otherwise, why keep them?

Any such dictionary should offer words which, by their wit, appositeness or perceptiveness, live on beyond the moment of their saying. This one would appear to be like a mother who insists on passing on to us the unclever things her children have because they are her children, not because they said anything significant.

The danger with this is that words lose their value. If the nonsensical becomes significant, the significant will soon become nonsensical.  Like paper currency issued without the means to honour it, language will have no serious relation to the experience it is supposed to represent.


  Adept Avoidance of the Obvious                                                                                                                                              1st May 2013  

I suppose the Ice Age began as a nip in the air.  Probably those around at the time didn’t fully take in what was happening until they started to freeze in their tracks.  If so, they were practising that essential human skill of putting part of the truth in abeyance so that we can get on with what we decide is the purpose of our lives.

The context in which we choose to act out those lives may be as flimsy as a canvas backcloth beyond which is just the dark.  But any tear in it we will try to incorporate into the ostensible normality of the parts we are playing.  So an elderly man comes out of the house wearing socks of different colours and we see a laughable momentary aberration when what we are looking at turns out to have been the beginning of Alzheimer’s.

We survive through adept avoidance of the obvious.  We imagine stability within constant change and call it home.  We euphemise the truth and live calmly with the denial of its darkness.  Even a term as simple as dental practice can have dark implications within the cliché, like a strange shadow moving beyond the frosted glass of a conventionally lettered door.

            His fear sucked comfort from the needle’s teat.
            He slowly digested the milk of nothing
            It tasted bitter.  But would it taste sweet?
            Sensation, an over-zealous butler,
            came to announce that no pain had arrived.
            He waited and felt it fail to come,
            was pondering what it must be like
            And it was gone.
            Inside himself he gave tongue to its absence.
            The statement was a simple one:
            Where was identity, a habit,
            a prop of self was space, a hole –
            but easily filled.  The moment abated.
            So this was a dry run after all.
            But he leaned and spat.  Death had salivated.
And we’re right to forget about it.  After all, all that has happened is we’ve lost a tooth.  Isn’t it?

 Next update - Friday 1st May 2013                                                                     

  e-mail: william.mcilvanney@personaldispatches.com                                                                    © William McIlvanney