Saturday, 24 February 2007

Mud Maps and Long Breakfasts

Around this time last year I had the good luck to share the back seat of a car to and from a conference with a young academic called Anthony McCann. I had already read one of his articles which suggested both that he was alarmingly clever and that we had many interests in common, and so that weekend led to a friendship which grew over the following months. On Monday mornings we would meet at 8.15 at my favourite cafe and it was not unusual for us still to be there, several coffees down, as the lunchtime rush began.

That series of drawn out breakfasts offered the most sustained period of intellectual guidance I had known since leaving Oxford. Six years on, I was more committed to the ground we covered and (with no disrespect to my old tutors) had found a teacher better suited to my own ways of thinking. (Among other things, it had the effect of allaying my insecurity about never quite making it back to academic study, despite the good intentions and aborted Masters courses of my mid-twenties.)

Sadly for me, though not for him, Anthony moved on to Derry last summer, where he now lectures at the Academy for Irish Cultural Heritages at the University of Ulster. Around the same time, my own life became busier, and our friendship has lain fallow of late. But I was brought back tonight to one of the maxims to which he would return regularly in our conversations. "The more the words matter, the less they matter."

It seems a paradoxical saying for a pair who could talk four hours flat and barely stop for breath. (On one memorable occasion, our conversation was overheard by Sam West, who introduced himself afterwards and expressed an interest in hearing more of my ideas - an interest which sadly came to nothing...) But besides reminding me that I'm too good at hiding in words, Anthony's point was that the more you insist on the letter of what you or anyone else is saying, the less likely it is that you are paying attention to or being heard by those you are with.

Ivan Illich gets at a similar truth in his essay, 'The Eloquence of Silence'. (I quoted this at greater length on Anthony's Crafting Gentleness blog last summer.) He is reflecting on the experience of providing language training to priests, teachers and social workers:

It is... not so much the other man's words as his silences which we have to learn in order to understand him...

The man who tries to buy the language like a suit, the man who tries to conquer the language through grammar so as to speak it "better than the natives around here" a man who tries basically to rape the culture into which he is sent, and he must expect the corresponding reactions... He continues to "do things for people" and considers them ungrateful because they understand that he does these things to bolster his ego...

It requires much courage at this point to return to the patient silence of interest or to the delicacy of the silence within which words grow.

What brought me back to that passage tonight was an account (courtesy of Juliet E McKenna) of Alan Garner's appearance at last year's Cheltenham Literary Festival, where he told the story of The Stonebook Quartet, which is the story of his family:

Alan talked of childhood visits to his grandfather; of the way silence was as much a part of conversations as words, and how he absorbed knowledge of local family, history and legend by osmosis. How for him, family became something between linear time and a time beyond history, a universality. As he grew older, he realised that local stories attributed to a stone-cutting great-great grandfather couldn’t possibly be quite true. Later, he learned that this is a feature of folk-myth, where significant local features and stories are successively tied to real figures on the upper limit of local living memory. So to question the truth of such a story is to completely miss the point.

What leapt at me was the bit about the role of silence in conversation - and Garner is, by all accounts, as outstanding a linguist as was Illich - but on re-reading, I notice that the last line of that paragraph is also a version of Anthony's maxim, for to question the truth of the story is to make the words matter overly.

(These are strange things to say, for few handle words with so great a respect as Alan Garner - yet to do so is to recognise their strangeness, just as the Biblical literalist denies it. To idolise something is, by this line of thought, a form of disrespect.)

I am fascinated by the kind of common ground which is invisible to the categories into which writers and thinkers are conventionally sorted. So that I find resonances again and again between Garner and Illich, or between either and John Berger, Hugh Brody, Rowan Williams and so on. (You are unlikely to spot such resonances if you place importance on the labels which attach to a writer, so that Garner is a children's novelist, Berger an old Marxist art critic and Williams the Archbishop of Canterbury - another case of letting the words matter too much.)

sMary tells me that I go about constructing subterranean canons - which is fine, so long as it's clear that these alignments of names and texts are improvised to fit the moment, not presented as an alternative pantheon. (A moment may be a single conversation or a life's work.) If they are helpful, it is in the way that a map sketched in the mud may help:

A mud map is the map a farmer draws on the ground for a passing traveller. It is rough and ready, not very detailed, and lacks nuance. The scale may be inaccurate. But the map has on it the details needed for the journey.

(Thanks to Jan Thomas for the 'mud map' analogy, which I find very helpful.)

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