Whose words are these?

The strange evolution of a Martin Luther King quotation can tell us a lot about authorship.

Authorship is a funny thing. Take this blog post, for example. There, above the headline, is a large, pink egg-shaped object that bears an uncanny resemblance to the putty-faced ovoid I occasionally wash when I can't see through the grime. It's my face, trapped in that awkward sneery half-smile, and these words are mine.

Well, are they? You could say that I've lifted "these words are mine" from the beautiful lyrics of Natasha Bedingfield's spectacularly written song about songwriting, "These Words Are Mine". And there they are, the same Roman characters in the same order, the same English words implying a very similar sentiment to that pop masterwork. I would argue, though, that since I haven't surrounded them with the lustrous beauty that Bedingfield did, I haven't so much borrowed them from her fair quill, but simply reproduced a familiar phrase.

I think that's fair enough, but it's hard to know. When writing something, you're aware that you might stumble across something someone else once did before, whether you're doing so accidentally or knavishly. It's the latter knavishness that is frowned upon, of course, for tweet jackdaws who end up cracking gags that others have made before, using their own avatar and getting all the plaudits.

But then, what if you come up with the same thing independently, simultaneously? There is only a finite number of puns, for example: someone's bound to have thought about the same one as you, and done it before – and probably done it better. Does that mean you're a thief if you think you've come up with one yourself, only to discover that it came out of the Ark?

I ask all this because, this week, words from Martin Luther King Jr echoed around Twitter and Facebook. "I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, even an enemy," he said. Or rather, he didn't. The quotation came instead from a Pennsylvanian English teacher in Japan, Jessica Dovey, who had followed her own sentiment with the true King quote:

Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.

Dovey's quote got added in to MLK's words, and then, for reasons of space in Twitter's 140-character limit, her quote became King's. Except he never said it.

Does it matter, now that we know a figure we admire didn't say these words – that they came from a pleb, someone who is just like us? Does it diminish their power? Does it erode credibility from those who repeated and retweeted the sentiment in those hours after the slaying of Osama Bin Laden, using the authoritative voice of a peace campaigner to reflect their views that the killing was less than morally perfect?

I think the answer is no. If anything, I feel it's a wonderful thing to discover a new, extraordinary quotation from someone completely ordinary. Would we have known about Dovey's words if they had not been wrongly attributed to someone more famous? Probably not. But I'm glad we did hear them.

It is too easy to attribute wise-sounding words to the wise people we've learned to admire. There are plenty of mistakes, bad quotes and less-than-pleasant things that got said by many famous figures whose other words are copied and pasted all over the place; but we tend to ignore those other sayings in favour of the aphorisms that suit our sentiments the most. It's a deal more complicated than that, but when you're trying to sum up your feelings in 140 characters or fewer, a lot of the richness to these passages does die away.

So, yes, I did write this; but I had help, from Natasha Bedingfield, from Martin Luther King, from Jessica Dovey. Would you believe me if I said I wrote this all on my own? Probably not. Does it matter if I did most of it by myself? I hope so. These words are mine. Trying to find the magic, trying to write a classic . . . sometimes we all borrow a little from somewhere else.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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I can’t follow Marie Kondo's advice – even an empty Wotsits packet “sparks joy” in me

I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

I have been brooding lately on the Japanese tidying freak Marie Kondo. (I forgot her name so I typed “Japanese tidying freak” into Google, and it was a great help.) The “Japanese” bit is excusable in this context, and explains a bit, as I gather Japan is more on the case with the whole “being tidy” thing than Britain, but still.

Apart from telling us that we need to take an enormous amount of care, to the point where we perform origami when we fold our underpants, which is pretty much where she lost me, she advises us to throw away anything that does not, when you hold it, “spark joy”. Perhaps I have too much joy in my life. I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

After a while I gave up on this because I was getting a bit too happy with all the memories, so then I thought to myself, about her: “This is someone who isn’t getting laid enough,” and then I decided that was a crude and ungallant thought, and besides, who am I to wag the finger? At least if she invites someone to her bedroom no one is going to run screaming from it, as they would if I invited anyone to my boudoir. (Etym: from the French “bouder”, to sulk. How very apt in my case.) Marie Kondo – should bizarre circumstance ever conspire to bring her to the threshold – would run screaming from the Hovel before she’d even alighted the stairs from the front door.

I contemplate my bedroom. As I write, the cleaning lady is in it. To say that I have to spend half an hour cleaning out empty Wotsits packets, and indeed wotnot, before I let her in there should give you some idea of how shameful it has got. And even then I have to pay her to do so.

A girlfriend who used to be referred to often in these pages, though I think the term should be a rather less flippant one than “girlfriend”, managed to get round my natural messiness problem by inventing a game called “keep or chuck”.

She even made up a theme song for it, to the tune from the old Spiderman TV show. She would show me some object, which was not really rubbish, but usually a book (it may not surprise you to learn that it is the piles of books that cause most of the clutter here), and say, “Keep or chuck?” in the manner of a high-speed game show host. At one point I vacillated and so she then pointed at herself and said, “Keep or chuck?” I got the message.

These days the chances of a woman getting into the bedroom are remote. For one thing, you can’t just walk down the street and whistle for one much as one would hail a cab, although my daughter is often baffled by my ability to attract females, and suspects I have some kind of “mind ray”. Well, if I ever did it’s on the blink now, and not only that – right now, I’m not even particularly bothered that it’s on the blink. Because, for another thing, I would frankly not care to inflict myself upon anyone else at the moment.

It was all a bit of a giggle eight years ago, when I was wheeled out of the family home and left to my own devices. Of course, when I say “a bit of a giggle”, I mean “terrifying and miserable”, but I had rather fewer miles on the clock than I do now, and a man can, I think, get away with a little bit more scampish behaviour, and entertain a few more illusions about the future and his own plausibility as a character, when he is squarely in his mid-forties than when he is approaching, at speed, his middle fifties.

Death has rather a lot to do with it, I suppose. I had not actually seen, or touched, a dead body until I saw, and touched, my own father’s a few weeks ago. That’s what turns an abstract into a concrete reality. You finally put that to one side and gird up your loins – and then bloody David Bowie snuffs it, and you find yourself watching the videos for “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” over and over again, and reach the inescapable conclusion that death is not only incredibly unpleasant, it is also remorseless and very much nearer than you think.

And would you, dear reader, want to be involved with anyone who kept thinking along those lines? I mean, even if he learned how to fold his undercrackers into an upright cylinder, like a napkin at a fancy restaurant, before putting them in his drawer? When he doesn’t even have a drawer?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war