I forgot the word sahel when I was writing From Memory. It’s the word that describes where I was in Niger. Tim Marshal reminded me that it comes from the Arabic word ‘sahil’ meaning coast. Shorelines are another of the things that depend on your perspective; the sea of Saharan sands has a southern coast. Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography is a great read for an armchair cartographer. Follow it along The New Silk Roads from Peter Frankopan to test if your current physical isolation is more or perhaps less constraining than an asymptomatic educational isolation. I’m not intending to be rude or patronising. Knowing you have limitations wakes you to the possibilities that your awareness of your limits is itself limited. Knowing of such limits may encourage you to explore for new concepts, seek the words to conjure and invoke and animate and debate them. Or cause you to distrust your perception.
Then there’s the problem of how our memories alter every time we think about them. I’ll illustrate that with the Word Ladder game invented by Lewis Carroll. So let’s see how Alice might have switched from seeing a Black to a White Queen in seven steps (red didn’t do it for me nor did WordPress formatting):
Black is probably what Alice saw
But she’s an imperfect witness in changing light so thinks it dark grey
Her brain discarded unimportant details like ‘dark’ for storage
She suffers a subjective retrieval bias wondering which grey
Which becomes brighter as her advisor suggests
And more detail is discarded as she puts it back for a few years
And then her expert testimony is summoned and it was light grey
Or maybe it’s easier for you to understand if she calls it white.
I was asked why I use ‘anchoritism’ as a filing category. I think I’ll blame Patrick Leigh Fermor. He wrote about contemplation and introspection in his lucent piece A Time of Silence in which he records his experiences of retreats in monasteries. Mansuetude. Giaour. Encomium. I needed a dictionary to understand him and expand my understandings. Which reminds me to tell you of English lessons when I was 12.
Our enthusiastic teacher ran a weekly word competition with the class divided into two teams. Any member could challenge the other team to explain the meaning of a word from the book we were studying at the time. Our homework, each eve of competition, was to find likely challenge words in passages that we would read to the class the next day. On the day, each paragraph was read by a different pupil. Paragraphs alternated between teams. Points were scored. Status became so important that most did their homework. So we only had to scour maybe a dozen pages the night before. Some of us loved it. An ‘amiable’ diplomat’s kid from Tokyo feared it. I ‘vouchsafe’ that he became a recurring champion, mastering Kenneth Graham’s The Wind in The Willows. Fear assuaged, the new champion never looked back. Which kept me energised in title defence.
Today, I note some green dots in the margins of Fermor’s …Silence because I still need dictionaries. Protean. Crepitates. Décrassage de l’âme. Not having access to a dictionary (or reference books generally) makes me feel a bit like a stylite, ascetics who lived on poles or more likely, pillars, knowing only what they thought they knew, isolated from learning anything other than self-awareness. So I mark pages when reading on planes, trains and ships, postponing full comprehension and gratification. Do I hear one hand clapping?
As adults, we used to play a word game for two with a pin and a dictionary. The first player randomly selects a page. The second nominates a column, calling a number between one and four. The first has ten seconds to name a word. A matching description by the rival earns a transfer of the book. The winner might be decided as the best of ten.
The pin and book idea was allegedly something Graham Greene used with telephone books, friends and whiskey. Apocryphal or not, I relate what I was told by someone who knew him and said of him, that he lived for his moral ambiguities. After midnight, with a skinful of booze (perhaps other substances), out would come the pin, the directory and the new fangled rotary dial phone on a long wire. Bets were placed, a random number selected and dialed. The winner would be the person who kept some unfortunate on the phone the longest.
Getting such a call, you might be lost for words or find some expletives. Which reminded me of The Lost Words. Suffice to say I see two hard-backed copies on a shelf. In the one I picked up just now, Lia has stashed a soft covered copy of Liam C. Martin’s Dublin Sketch Book. Sun damaged and a bit worn like the rest of us, the book has an introduction by Terence de Vere White. He uses an evocative phrase to describe the Dublin in the drawings: ‘A sea-girt city half as old as sin.’ I don’t know how to express the home city pride this implies. I need a phrase that is the exact opposite of ‘damning with faint praise’. Litotes. Understatement.
I look at the changed and lost buildings, like the lyrically titled ‘Annavilla, Ranelagh’ sketched on the first page. Instant recognition of a familiar place, utterly changed, emotes sadness for me even though I know it brings joy to an archivist. I might lunt on my reaction to words lost to fashion. But to cull words by committee is simply wrong. The argument that dictionaries need maintenance brooks no support from me. The digital word weighs nothing, and exists as a binary, bound in silicon waiting for a spark of energy from someone to invite it to reveal itself as a focus for our thoughts that weigh nothing, exist as molecules, bound in corticles waiting for a chemical signal from something that stimulates it to reveal itself. And so it goes.
Mind you, nothing is relative and the force (weight) of words and thoughts may one day be ascribed physical as well as intellectual properties. The space station astronauts weighed nothing for a year. The water I see in those clouds passing overhead weighs hundreds of tons.
‘Once upon a time, words began to vanish from the language of children.’ This is the opening line of The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and illustrated by Jackie Morris.
Here, today, I must say ‘goodbye’ to the magpie that just flew into oblivion after passing my window. ‘Au revoir’ to the once perennial bluebell that has shouted April from beyond our front door for decades. ‘Hasta luego conkers’ we collected when you were nine and ten years later sit dried, undrillable, inert on the shelf behind me. We suffer a delusion of ferns unfurling and fanning in both our front and back gardens. Listen carefully, that must be the last wren I hear singing. ‘Now you think you see wren, now you know you don’t’.
It’s Poetry Ireland Day and I hope to finish on the theme. Words of birds but perhaps the kingfisher is already lost. Paula Meehan’s collection Pillow Talk (1994) has the apposite poem ‘A Child’s Map of Dublin’, gulls lost in today’s city, temporarily:
`The Natural History Museum: found poem
of oriole, kingfisher, sparrowhawk, nighjar,
but the gull drew me strongest – childhood guide
to the freedom and ecstasy of flight’
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