February 2008

The Nation Reviewed

The perfectly bad sentence

By Clive James
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

In writing, to reach the depths of badness, it isn’t enough to be banal. One must strive for lower things. Almost five years have gone by since I cut out from a British newspaper the article containing the following passage, and I think I am finally ready to examine the subtleties of its perfection. But first, let the reader judge its initial impact.

Now, the onus is on Henman to come out firing at Ivanisevic, the wild card who has torn through this event on a wave of emotion ...

(Neil Harman, Sunday Telegraph sports section, front page, 8 July 2001)

Time has elapsed, Tim Henman has dropped out of the top 50 after never sticking long in the top five, the original clipping has gone a mellow colour at the edges, and the featured sentence is at last ready to be analysed, as a fine wine slowly makes itself ready to be tasted. Ivanisevic aside, there are two men involved here: Henman and Harman. One is a tennis player, and one writes about tennis. It is Mr Harman, I think, who is better equipped for his career. Tim Henman was always a bit too lightly built in the chest and shoulders. Mr Harman has what it takes to go on serving his clichés and solecisms with undiminished strength forever.

But let’s take a look at how he does it – or how he did it, on the day that no spectator of bad writing will ever forget. At this point the reader should scan the sentence once again, slowly, as with an action replay.

An “onus” is a weight, but the word has been so long in the language that its derivation can safely be left for dead: Shakespeare himself would have no quarrel there. For Henman “to come out firing”, however, is borderline at best. We can leave it neutral, but would prefer to know why the metaphor is military. Baudelaire, in Mon coeur mis à nu, warned us that journalists with a fondness for military metaphors were proving their unwarlike nature. For all we know, Baudelaire’s stricture fails to fit Mr Harman, who might have been in the SAS before he turned journalist. We can’t help suspecting, though, that Mr Harman has no accurate picture in his mind of what sort of weapons Tim Henman might be firing at Ivanisevic. The writer simply means that the British tennis player is behaving aggressively. But then we find that the British tennis player is a wild card behaving aggressively. The wild card, again, is metaphor that can be left for dead: it was brought in from gambling, but we court pedantry if we ask for it to be brought alive. All we can ask for is that it be not too grotesquely transfigured in its death: the corpse should not be mutilated. If a wild card tears through something, it should not be on a wave of emotion. Suddenly the British tennis player, weighed down with his unnamed weapons, has become a surfer. And the sentence isn’t even over.

But neither is its impact, which has only just begun. Speaking as one whose flabber is hard to gast, I'm bound to say I was floored. Not bound in the sense of being tied up with ropes by a burglar, or floored in the sense of having tipped my chair over while trying to reach the telephone with my teeth: I mean floored in the sense of having my wings clipped. One of my convictions about the art of composing a prose sentence in English is that for some of its potential metaphorical content to be realised, the rest must be left dormant. You can’t cash in on the possibilities of every word. In poetry you do more of that than in prose, but even in poetry, pace Baudelaire, you must concentrate your forces to fight your battles, and there is no concentrating your forces in one place without weakening them in another – a fact that Field Marshal von Manstein vainly tried to point out to Hitler.

To achieve conscious strength in one area, we must will a degree of inattention in other areas: such has been my conclusion from long experience. But here, from out of the blue, is a sentence that demonstrates how the whole construction can be inattentive, and achieve an explosive integrity through its having not been pondered at all. Imagine the power of being that free! Imagine being able to use a well-worn epithet like “out of the blue” without checking up on whether its implied clear sky comes into conflict with a storm later in the sentence, or whether it chimes too well, but in the wrong way, with a revelation in the previous sentence that the person being talked about once rowed for Oxford or Cambridge! Imagine not having to worry about “explosive integrity”! Imagine, just imagine, what it would be like to get on with the writing and leave all the reading to the reader!

Too late. I missed the wave, perhaps because I was carrying too many weapons. A kind of wild card myself, I might have ridden my potato-chip surfboard more easily if I had not been burdened with all my onerous ordinance. The mine detector, especially, was the straw that broke the camel’s back – or, as Mr Harman (and Australia’s prime minister) might have put it, was the bridge too far. At high school in Sydney I was taught not just to parse a sentence but to make sure that any pictures it evoked matched up. Our teacher, Mr Aked, was not a professional philologist, but like all people with an ear for language he was a philologist at heart. He taught us enough Latin roots to make us realise that etymology was a force in the language, and the more likely to be a confusing force the less it was recognised. He didn’t make it all fun. Some of it was hard work. But he made the hard work satisfactory, which is the beginning of good teaching, and I suppose that period was my one and only beginning of good learning: I began to become the student I would be in later years, long after I had proved that formal study was not my gift.

It was also, alas, the beginning of my suffering. My antennae for linguistic anomaly were extended and I could never afterwards draw them in. Even today, half a century later, I can’t use a word like “antennae” without first picturing in my mind what kind of antennae I mean. Are they metal antennae, like the basket-work arrays of a radar station, or are they fleshly antennae, as on a bug? Having decided, I try to make something else in the sentence match up, so as not to leave the word lying inert, because it is too fancy a word to be left alone, while not fancy enough to claim its own space. Having finished the piece, I comb through it (what kind of comb?) to look for what I overlooked: almost always it will be a stretch of too-particular writing, where the urge to make everything vivid gets out of hand. But I will still question what kind of urge gets out of hand, and I might even have to look up the origin of “out of hand”, to make sure it has nothing to do with wild cards.

Purple patches call attention to themselves and are easily dealt with by the knife. The freckle-sized blotches of lifeless epithet, unintended repetition and clueless tautology are what do the damage. In the first rough draft of this piece, in the first paragraph after the quotation from Mr Harman, I had a clause, which I later struck out, that ran thus: “with the bonus of its proud owner’s barely suppressed grief”. But “barely suppressed” is the kind of grief that any journalist thinks a subtle stroke; and, even less defensibly, “bonus” echoes “onus”, one of the key words of the fragment under discussion. All that could be said for my use of “bonus” was that I used it without tautology. In journalism, the expression “added bonus” is by now almost as common as it is in common speech. (My repetition of “common” is intentional, and the reason you know is that you know I must know, because the repeated word comes so soon.)

Too many times, on the way to Australia by air, the helpless passenger will be informed over the public-address system that his Qantas flight is “co-shared” with British Airways. The tautology is a mere hint of how the Australian version of English is rapidly accumulating new tautologies as if they were coinages: as an Australian police officer might say, it is a prior warning. Already the spoken term “co-shared” is appearing as “code-shared” when written down: I saw it this year at a Qantas desk in Terminal 4 at Heathrow, and Terminal 5 isn’t even built yet. If the language goes on decaying at this rate, an essay consisting entirely of errors is on the cards. In the television studio it is already on autocue. (In America I could have said “cue-cards” for “autocue” and got a nice intentional echo to make “on the cards” sound less uninspired, but it would have been unfair: American English is the version of the language least prone to error at present – or, as the Americans would say, at this time.) But when all the nits are picked, and the piece is in shape and ready to be printed, one can’t help feeling that to be virtuous is a hard fate. Most of the new errors I couldn’t make if I tried. In the Melbourne Age of 27 August 2001, an article that it took two people to write included the sentence, “The size of the financial discrepancies were eventually discovered.” I couldn’t match the joyous freedom of that just by relaxing.

What I would like to do, however, is relax my habitual attention to the sub-current of metaphorical content. Most of the really hard work is done down there, deep under the surface, where the river runs in secret. (Watch out for the sub-current and the river! Do they match?) No doubt it would be a sin just to let things go, but what a sweet sin it would be. It is sometimes true of poetry, and often true of prose, that there are intensities of effect which can be produced only by bad writing. Good writing has to lay out an argument for the collapse of a culture. Bad writing can demonstrate it: the scintillating clangour of confusion, the iridescent splendour of decay. A box of hoarded fireworks set off at random will sacrifice its planned sequential order, but gain through its fizzing, snaking, interweaving unpredictability.

The handcart of culture has to go a long way downhill before the hubs wobbling on its worn axles can produce a shriek like Mr Harman’s prose. You will have noticed how, in my previous paragraph, I have switched my area of metaphor from chaos to decay, and then from pyrotechnics back to chaos. I would like to think that this process was deliberate, although there is always a chance that I undertook it in response to a reflex: the irrepressible urge to turn an elementary point into a play of fancy. If it is a reflex, however, I hope it lurks in a deeper chamber than my compositional centre, and so leaves room for conscious reflection – a word from the same root, but suggesting a very different tempo.

Mr Harman’s reflex occupies his whole mind. But he should worry: look at what he can do without pausing for thought. In his classic sentence, Mr Harman does not commit a single technical error. It is on a sound grammatical structure that he builds his writhing, Art Nouveau edifice of tangled imagery, as if Gaudi, in Barcelona, had coated his magic church of the Sagrada Familia with scrambled eggs, and made them stick. Mr Harman has made a masterpiece in miniature. There is an exuberant magnificence to it. As Luciano Pavarotti once said, I salute him from the heart of my bottom.

Clive James

Clive James was an author, critic, broadcaster and poet. He wrote more than 20 books, including his memoir, The Blaze of Obscurity, and a collection of essays, The Revolt of the Pendulum.

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