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Commonplace Book

On editing

Very good advice on editing from “Mrs Hawkins” in Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry from Kensington:

‘When you are editing copy, Mrs Hawkins, what sort of things do you look for?’ said Howard Send. ‘Exclamation marks and italics used for emphasis,’ I said. ‘And I take them out.’ It was as good an answer as any. ‘Suppose the author was Aldous Huxley or Somerset Maugham?’ he said. I told him that if these were his authors he didn’t need a copy-editor.

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Duplicity

From Eric Ambler’s The Mask of Dimitrios:

Only a few men, painters, have been able to see the mind through the face. Other men in their judgements reach out for the evidence of word and deed that will explain the mask before their eyes. Yet, though they understand instinctively that the mask cannot be the man behind it; they are generally shocked by a demonstration of the fact. The duplicity of others must always be shocking when one is unconscious of one’s own.

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Drunkenness

A precise, and concise, description from Joseph Roth, in The Radetzky March, of how it feels to be drunk:

Lieutenant Trotta did not budge.  He could remember that his father had recently arrived, and he understood that it wasn’t this father, but a whole bunch of fathers that were standing in front of him.  But he was unable to recall either why his father had come today, or why he was multiplying so extremely, or yet why he, the Lieutenant, was unable to stand up.

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Drug addiction

I’ve never been a drug addict myself (I’m glad to say) but this description of addiction from Eric Ambler’s The Mask of Dimitrios paints a very convincing picture of how addiction can take hold:

The process is always roughly the same. It begins as an experiment. Half a gramme, perhaps, is taken through the nostrils. It may make you feel sick the first time, but you will try again and the next time it will be as it should be. A delicious sensation, warm, brilliant. Time stands still, but the mind moves at a tremendous pace and, it seems to you, with incredible efficiency. You were stupid; you become highly intelligent. You were unhappy; you become carefree. What you do not like you forget; and what you do like you experience with an intensity of pleasure undreamed of. Three hours of paradise. And afterwards it is not too bad; not nearly as bad as it was when you had too much champagne. You want to be quiet; you feel a little ill at ease, that is all. Soon you are yourself again. Nothing has happened to you except that you have enjoyed yourself amazingly. If you do not wish to take the drug again, you tell yourself you need not do so. As an intelligent person you are superior to the stuff. Then, therefore, there is no logical reason why you should not enjoy yourself again, is there? Of course there isn’t! And so you do. But this time it is a little disappointing. Your half a gramme was not quite enough. Disappointment must be dealt with. You must wander in paradise just once more before you decide not to take the stuff again. A trifle more; nearly a gramme perhaps. Paradise again and still you don’t feel any the worse for it. And since you don’t feel any the worse for it, why not continue? Everybody knows that the stuff does ultimately have a bad effect on you, but the moment you detect any bad effects you will stop. Only fools become addicts. One and a half grammes. It really is something to look forward to in life. Only three months ago everything was so dreary, but now … Two grammes. Naturally, as you are taking a little more it is only reasonable to expect to feel a little ill and depressed afterwards. It’s four months now. You must stop soon. Two and a half grammes. Your nose and throat get so dry these days. Other people seem to get on your nerves, too. Perhaps it is because you are sleeping so badly. They make too much noise. They talk so loudly. And what are they saying? Yes, what? Things about you, vicious lies. You can see it in their faces. Three grammes. And there are other things to be considered, other dangers. You have to be careful. Food tastes horrible. You cannot remember things that you have to do; important things. Even if you should happen to remember them, there are so many other things to worry you apart from this beastliness of having to live. For instance, your nose keeps running: that is, it is not really running but you think it must be, so you have to keep touching it to make sure. Another thing: there is always a fly annoying you. This terrible fly will never leave you alone and in peace. It is on your face, on your hand, on your neck. You must pull yourself together. Three and a half grammes …

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Doublethink

This definition of doublethink from George Orwell’s 1984 is horrifyingly resonant in 2020 UK:

To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them; to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy; to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again: and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself. That was the ultimate subtlety: consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word ‘doublethink’ involved the use of doublethink.

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Doing stuff

I find this advice from John Kay’s Obliquity very useful:

When faced with a task that daunts you, a project that you find difficult, begin by doing something.  Choose a small component that seems potentially relevant to the task.  While it seems to make sense to plan everything before you start, mostly you can’t: objectives are not clearly enough defined, the nature of the problem keeps shifting, it is too complex, and you lack sufficient information.  The direct approach is simply impossible.

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How to lose weight

A wonderfully straightforward piece of advice from ‘Mrs Hawkins’ in Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry from Kensington:

As an aside, I can tell you that if there’s nothing wrong with you except fat it is easy to get thin. You eat and drink the same as always, only half. If you are handed a plate of food, leave half; if you have to help yourself, take half. After a while, if you are a perfectionist, you can consume half of that again … I offer this advice without fee; it is included in the price of this book.

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Decline

Thomas Buddenbrook on the beginning of the end in Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks:

Happiness and success are inside us. We have to reach deep and hold tight. And the moment something begins to subside, to relax, to grow weary, then everything around us is turned loose, resists us, rebels, moves beyond our influence. And then it’s just one thing after another, one setback after another, and you’re finished. The last few days I’ve been thinking about a Turkish proverb I read somewhere: ‘When the house is finished, death follows.’ Now, it doesn’t have to be death exactly. But retreat, decline, the beginning of the end. […] I know that the external, visible, tangible tokens and symbols of happiness and success first appear only after things have in reality gone into decline already. Such external signs need time to reach us, like the light of one of those stars up there, which when it shines most brightly may well have already gone out, for all we know.

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Death (and taxes, perhaps)

Mr Swales in Bram Stoker’s Dracula puts the human condition pithily:

For life be, after all, only a waitin’ for somethin’ else than what we’re doin’; and death be all that we can rightly depend on.

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More death (and love)

And while we’re on the theme of death and the Great War, here’s Joanna Cannan in High Table:

Look on, Cynic, your dozen years, to the time when such words as these will be explained away as wartime hysteria, when such a marriage as is planned now, in this brief, pink-and-white haven, will be dissolved on the cold grounds of incompatibility – we didn’t realise what we were doing – it was a mad wartime affair. Yet can you be sure that these children of calamity, with their music and their dancing and their Cliquot and their loving, and death not screened and unlikely behind his wreathes and crosses but as everyday a thing as going out and shutting the door, did not see clearer then than now, when the curtain has rung down on their melodrama and risen on a comedy in which they never thought to play? ‘Nothing can take our love from us,’ said Lennie, and aimed his remark at honest and rude death, no need to think of time or change or satiety in those straightforward days.