I want to be a camera

Listening is more important for a writer than the active imposition of "a greater truth".

One of the many novels I read, when young and impressionable, was Christopher Isherwood's Goodbye to Berlin. It's one of his Berlin stories, immortalised in the minds of men of a certain age by the image of Liza Minnelli straddling a chair in the film derived from them, "Cabaret". That life is a cabaret, old chum, is something I'm sure Johann Hari considered all too true last week.

I'm almost ashamed to admit that the reason I remember the book more powerfully than I do any of his other works, or even Liza Minnelli on the chair, is that its first page contains the line "I am a camera". Twenty-five years at least passed between my reading that novel, and this -- that which you see before you now -- an attempt to craft a career from words. I am here, you are reading this today, because I won a prize, called the Orwell Prize (I won it for my blogging on Conservative Home). The prize is awarded to the person who has "done most to turn political writing into an art", in the words of the people who award it. I'll come back to that reference to "art" in a moment.

It is still not possible for me to describe myself as a "writer". I am sure many of you will agree. I hope you take comfort that I cannot bring myself to even use that word inside my own head. I'm just a statistician, mildly obsessed with swimming, who sometimes writes things down.

I think I write because I am perplexed by most of the human beings around me (residual Only Child psychology), so I listen to what they say to one another, I listen to the words they use, and without always succeeding, I try not to theorise about why I'm hearing or seeing those things; and thus my fixation on that Christopher Isherwood novel. I want to be a camera. I am often puzzled by a dream, in the words of the beautiful song, and this bewilderment carries over to the snatches of disconnected words I hear around me every day. What are those patches of overheard conversations most like? They are dreams, the dreams of other people.

That George Orwell also inspires me is hardly a shock; he's a hero to many Tories because he refused to back down in his opposition to totalitarianism, simply because it was sometimes prefixed with the adjective "socialist". The real reason he interests me, though, is related to the writing-as-camera idea; that and the clear love he evinced in his writings for the English working class. It is so easy to scorn this love, to write it off as an affectation. For a homosexual man, of course, the confounding is multiplied -- my unchecked admiration for the men who build our roads, our houses, is not unaffected by my aesthetic sense, and I am aware of that. But the company of such men provides the chance to hear honesty in speech. I think there is more honesty to be found in a scuzzy East End pub on a Friday evening than in any boardroom or editorial office or writer's garret in the land. Nothing is dressed up, or hidden, for the sake of a "greater truth". It is this reason why the left is so angry with the working-class, and in government devoted such political energy into destroying their leisure environments. Working men remain -- just -- immune to the imprecations to speak only acceptable, liberal "truths".

So: I should be -- I am -- aghast at Johann Hari's actions: he "interviewed" people by meeting with them, and then (after the interviews, when he was writing them up), he ascribed direct quotations (of the "And then he said...." form) into the mouths of his interviewees. Unfortunately, regrettably, many of his interviewees had not used those words when speaking with Mr Hari. He lifted them from books, articles they had written. He did so in order to illustrate "their greater truth". Both the Tory and the empiricist in me have a massive problem with that.

But there remains, even for the person who wants only to record what is said around him, an element of art. And this is the only iota of sympathy I have for Mr Hari. I do write down what I hear, usually within seconds of hearing it. But could I take the witness stand, and swear on my life that I have written a totally verbatim transcript? Let me try it now. It is 10pm, I am in the pub closest to our flat, and I am hearing:

- No but the reason
- I did sell it
- what a lovely dog! he's smiling!
- you work abroad in the first place

Even that patch wasn't quite in real time -- my fingers won't go that fast. This is where the "art" (specified in the prize) might come in. The art is not in the "bigger truth". You deconvolve the multiple inputs into single-sensed passages, and add notes of scene-setting, and your own psychological conclusion:

- "I did sell it [my car]. The reason is that there's no point in going to work abroad if we're going to hold onto the life we've got here."
His girlfriend is bored. I feel strongly and at once that she does not want to move abroad, and that it is far from the first time they have had this conversation. Her gaze has moved from him, onto the dog that's been lurking under their table:
- "Oh, what a beautiful dog! Look, he's smiling!"
The man will move to Spain. His woman will remain behind.

The "art", if there be any art here at all, lies in the little truth. The straining to breaking point of a relationship on its last legs, the desperate displacement activity ("Oh, what a beautiful dog!") tell me, anyway, more about the life of that couple than any "greater" truth I might try to strap onto the scene, to persuade a reader that my loudly proclaimed worldview is the one worth supporting. I might "only" be describing an anonymous couple, but I think the principle would be the same in any situation.

My fundamental dogma is that words are real things, with power, in the Universe. Their power terrifies me, actually: they deserve respect. But then I'm not a writer. I just try to write things down.

 

 

Photo: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.