Stream of Consciousness

As a nipper, I was forced to read James Joyce's epic meandering tale Ulysses. It made little sense to me at the time, and I suspect would make even less now. Perhaps its most lasting effect was to make me very wary of anything sporting the tag 'literature'. To my mind, if something is so obscure and difficult to read as to make my brain hurt, then I really can't see the point in persevering with it. Twisty, convoluted plots, yes. Tricky characters who defy your expectations, fine. I'll even go for elegance of prose over ease of understanding some days, and I expect good writers to understand the importance of rhythm even when they're not poets. But the really difficult stuff, the references to obscure texts that are as much the writer saying 'look at me how clever and well read I am' as adding anything cogent to the story, the weird desire to ignore the rules of grammar and punctuation as if to do so is somehow edgy and dangerous.* These things I just don't get. That might make me seem thick in the eyes of some, but quite frankly I'm stupid enough not to care.

But why, I hear you ask, am I spouting forth about the difficulties of literary fiction? Well, I'm glad you asked. You see, lately I've been spending a lot of time looking at advertisments on ebay. In particular, I need to get myself a relatively cheap towing vehicle that will run for a year and can then be traded in against something for the farm. I've been looking at Land Rover Discoveries, Range Rovers, Mitsubishi Shoguns and Isuzu Troopers mostly, anything that strikes me as most suitable to the task. I don't really want to spend more than a grand if I can get away with it, which means that I'm fishing at the bottom of a very murky pond.

If you've ever looked at an ebay advertisement for a car, you'll know the format. There's a form at the top of the page, where you fill in the relevant details like manufacturer, model, engine size and so on, and then beneath that, the plucky seller is given as much space as he or she wants to wax lyrical about their no-longer favourite vehicle. The first part of the page is frustrating enough, as people are remarkably bad at filling in things correctly. Thus in a search for Range Rovers you can easily end up looking at half a dozen Vauxhall Astras or a BMW 3 Series convertible. 

In some ways this lack of understanding can be a good thing - track down the Range Rover that's been listed as something completely different and chances are you'll have less competition when it comes to bidding. On the other hand, apart from some dodgy, unfocussed photographs and the seller's pitch, you've no way of knowing whether you're buying a good'un or a dog. And if the seller doesn't even know what kind of car he's selling, then chances are the pitch is going to be at best incomplete. Worse, he probably doesn't even know an engine needs oil, let alone where to put it.

And these pitches are illiterate. Sometimes astonishingly so. There are spelling mistakes aplenty - the sad result of years of poor education in this country. There is bizarre grammar - a scattergun approach to commas and the inevitable roaming apostrophes. But what I like most is the terrified stream of consciousness that grips the person faced with filling that blank form so that he can get as much money as possible for his dodgy motor. This, for example, is an advertisement for a Land Rover Discovery:

hi selling my disco due to moveing to ireland in the next few weeks only had full service january at cost of £573.01 even got receipt drives very well and never lets you down photos will follow next few days no buy it now full payment on collection within 5 days or prior arrangment can be delivered for a price
You can almost taste the breathless terror as the poor soul racks his brain trying to come up with a description that will sell his car. In the end, after screwing up his courage just about as far as it will go, he lets forth in a flood of jumbled words, hoping against hope that they will somehow rearrange themselves into a semblance of sense. I particularly like the precision of the one detail he has been able to focus on - the cost of its last service down to a penny. And there, lurking in the price, is the only punctuation mark in the whole description. Nothing else can be allowed to come between the reader and the words.

On the plus side, there's only two spelling mistakes. I don't count the failure to capitalise Ireland, since there are no other capitals in the whole thing. 

Other descriptions are much worse; I've picked this one out mainly because it's mercifully brief. But what worries me, what bothers me to the point I feel moved to blog about it, is the sheer weight of poor communication out there. In this country we've had compulsory universal education for a hundred and forty years. The minimum school leaving age has been 16 for almost forty years, and yet a quite astonishing number of people are unable to write properly. True, these people function well enough in society - they can afford to buy Range Rovers after all - but it does ask the question just what is it that schools do?

I don't know. And I don't pretend to have an answer to how to improve literacy except to spend more on education and spend it more wisely - easy words, very difficult job. And when all's said and done, people do seem to cope surprisingly well not knowing what a gerund is, or where to put an apostrophe, so maybe I should stop worrying. In the meantime I'll leave you with another gem from my fishing trip, and you can all ponder yourselves how best to educate a nation that stubbornly refuses to learn.

Yeah, I'd pay a grand for that. 

* like Cormac McCarthy, for instance. Brilliant writer, great stories, but why oh why oh why won't he use bloody inverted commas to delineate speech? Everyone else does. It's a well understood convention that works. Not doing it just makes the writing that much more difficult to read. 


Gabriele C. said…
It's not any better in Germany.
My SiL teaches my niece spelling and grammar at home, because the school doesn't bother. The kids are supposed to be creative and spelling gets in the way of that, obviously.

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