I am the lyrebird, known as such
              for the shape my tail feathers make in courtship.
Yet I know nothing of the lyre.

I am the mimic, the impersonator.
              In my throat lives the call of the kookaburra.
Yet I know nothing of the kookaburra.

I am the joker, the imitator.
              I can echo perfectly the sound of the chainsaw.
Yet I know nothing of the chainsaw.


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Language ought to be the joint creation of poets and manual workers.
George Orwell

Ever since the acquisition of words provided me with a receptacle for memory, I have loved language.  Its music, its power to evoke, its absurd variety delighted me as a child and my joy in it flourished into my adolescence and youth.

My love of language took me into teaching – English first, then, for the greater part of my career, Drama.  As during my time in teaching time passed and experience accumulated, goals shifted, routes changed and strategies altered. But one constant remained at the heart of whatever version of whatever syllabus I followed. It was contained within a small but perfectly formed lecture that I would deliver, not particularly original in content but imparted with a messianic zeal undiminished by time and repetition.  

In it I would urge my students to take every opportunity they could to broaden their vocabularies and to recognise in language the key to knowledge, understanding, independence of mind and, ultimately, a degree of real personal autonomy. A keypoint of the address was reference to George Orwell’s 1984 and the mighty and potent weapon of Newspeak.  I would ask them to examine their own speech forms – the unquestioning reliance that some may have had on deliberately vague, oblique or discursive vocabulary or on acquired slang forms whose terms of reference, however linguistically rich in their own way, were meaningless within the cultural territory that these middle class students occupied.  

I would proselytise further about language as a universal resource whose capacity for articulating beauty and truth as we understand them need not be limited or constrained by social or cultural circumstances.  I used as exemplars of this certain Gypsies I have known whose illiteracy, far from being an impediment to the development of language, actually provoked the need for an enhanced flexibility and richness of expression because of reliance on the purely oral form.  I asked them to see that there need be no conflict of interests between their acquisition of linguistic skills and nominal subscription to a resolutely anti-intellectual culture. Indeed, such skills would provide an opportunity for agile movement across cultural territories. I would insist that the objective must be always to avoid being trapped within one register of language usage, unable to move with ease and grace from level to level.  

I would conclude by telling them to read, to read anything and everything. To make it a habit; to regard every unfamiliar word, phrase, term and figure of speech as a challenge to understanding that must be met.  Master language and ultimately you need never be manipulated, exploited, controlled, owned by anyone.  

And they would listen politely, only glazing over if I ventured too far past the 10-minute mark.  Occasionally, very occasionally, long after the event, the odd ex-student has made reference to the sermon and expressed gratitude for having been nudged towards a greater respect for language at just the right moment.  


For all that I can sometimes add to a well-turned sentence a word too far, only to have it collapse in on itself like some poorly constructed architectural folly, I have problems with language on the fly.  Listening to cornered politicians turning on the tap and shamelessly letting it flow unchecked has me barracking from the sofa.  Hysterical Oscar winners in verbal free fall, pretentious artists endeavouring to translate piles of house bricks into meaningful messages, pop stars who read a book once and now imagine themselves to be sages – all who sling words around like frisbees – have me grinding my teeth down to stumps.  This is not language in search of light; it’s language whose sole context is sound.

But what really brings down the red mist is the use of language as a means whereby to exclude all but the cognoscenti. When language becomes so abstruse, so convoluted, so comprehensively up its own arse, I know that I’m dealing with a man (almost invariably) who, were he not wielding a big fat pen, would be dealing with his sense of personal inadequacy by driving a very fast car very fast.  These professional intellectuals – almost all of them inhabiting the territory of top shelf philosophy, arts theory or, God help us, linguistics – have no interest whatsoever either in language’s capacity to communicate complex concepts with absolute clarity or in its intrinsic beauty in utterance or on the page.  The wielding of language is for them a kind of aristocratic sport by whose obscurantist rules and protocols they may celebrate their membership of an exclusive higher order of being.

Meanwhile, out in the bearpit a similar, if less refined game is being played. Consider the out-of-control IT jargoneer, the estate agent (realtor) describing a property and those drones who compose the letters that banks send you when you’re overdrawn. Each mangles and distorts language into something convoluted and grotesque, seeking to establish through it only the aggrandisement of his or her particular agency.  

These are the true perpetrators of Word Crimes, not those whose earnest attempts to communicate are hampered because their command of classical grammar may be faulty and their non-colloquial vocabulary sparse.  The latter struggles for meaning and truth; the former intends obfuscation and obscurity.


Now, how about this document.  I stumbled across it whilst doing some Internet research and as I read it I searched in vain for irony. I present it as evidence for the prosecution, item 1. It comes from a PhD dissertation entitled Immersive Ideals/Critical Distances : A Study of the Affinity Between Artistic Ideologies Based in Virtual Reality and Previous Immersive Idioms. Okay, I might be accused of emulating Hermann Goering and reaching for my revolver at the utterance of the word ‘culture’, but please – is this an authentic statement about an area of art theory and practice so arcane that it can’t communicate its specifics without the exclusive use of entirely specialist language – or is it simply check-this-out bollocks?

A lacunae world of incessant transmutation has emerged in art and established a seemingly unrestricted area of prodigality which I identify as viractuality. With the increased augmentation of the self via micro-electronics feasible today, the real co-exists with the virtual and the organic fuses with the computer-robotic. Consequently, I am interested in a new interlaced sense of artistic viractuality which couples the biological with the technological and the static with the malleable. As such, viractualism strives for an understanding and depiction of an anti-essentiality of the techno-body so as to allow for no privileged logos. Here images of the flesh are undone by machinic viral disturbances they cannot contain. Here thought detaches itself from the order and authority of the old signs and topples down into the realm of viractual reverie.

Thank you for your attention. Any questions?


A final reflection on language and meaning. In 1962 the late Harold Pinter made a statement about his perception of the real function of much the speech that we utter, ostensibly for the purposes of communication.  It’s a difficult statement that requires careful reading and subsequent reflection. But there’s a world of difference between the narcissistic game playing of the writer just quoted and the elegant and painstaking proposition that is now seen as informing at the deepest level Pinter’s extraordinary work.

There are two silences. One when no word is spoken. The other when perhaps a torrent of language is being employed. This speech is speaking of a language locked beneath it. That is its continual reference. The speech we hear is an indication of that which we don’t hear. It is a necessary avoidance, a violent, sly, anguished, or mocking smoke screen which keeps the other in its place. When true silence falls we are still left with echo but are nearer nakedness. One way of looking at speech is to say that it is a constant stratagem to cover nakedness.


In conclusion, I must acknowledge that much of the above may be seen to achieve little more than to prove through example the author’s claims. If that is the case then I’ll just have to try harder to pursue Samuel Beckett’s paradoxical aim of trying to pare language back to the bone through the use of language. Now, for a brief while, I shall stop talking…

*An earlier version of this post appeared on the Patteran Pages in February 2007.

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Steve Moorby : guitar/keyboards/mandolin/pedal steel/vocals
Gemma Moorby : guitar/keyboards/drums & percussion/vocals
Dick Jones : bass guitar/bouzouki

One of the very greatest English singer/songwriters Richard Thompson was asked whether he thought of his lyrics as poetry. He answered: I think they would incorporate a few of the virtues of poetry at one time or another, though in a more dilute form. In a sense, they are aground, lacking the depth to make them float on the cold page, needing the tune to lift them up off the sandbank. There are many poets who have written good, sing-able lyrics, like Walter Scott, Burns Yeats, etc. I think of Leonard Cohen as someone who does both poetry and song well, and it’s interesting, I think, to see how simple his tunes can be to carry various levels of complexity in the lyric.

In respect of my own song lyrics – written these days for songwriting trio Moorby Jones – I’ve always tended to discount them against my poetry, seeing them somewhat as second-class citizens, drones with a narrowly specific role in the scheme of things. Whilst making no great claims for the poems as being driven by the fiery heart and soul, I incline to the subjective view that the creation of a song is more a function of craft processes, like the building of a well-constructed wall. Its principal purpose is to accommodate – to contain narrative and to direct sentiment and to be served in this by an equally skillfully crafted melody. The success of the enterprise is in the synthesis of the two.

Richard Thompson refers to the simplicity of Leonard Cohen’s tunes as the appropriate counterbalance to the complexity of the lyrics and I think that there’s a fundamental equation at work there. Now that Steve Moorby and I have been back in close partnership again for some four years, any new lyric that I write tends to anticipate from the start the kind of setting that Steve will provide. Not that I make any attempt to assemble words towards a particular kind of treatment: it’s entirely a function of the symbiosis that develops between lyricist and melodist. And not infrequently Steve will surprise me with the direction he’s taken so that the contemplative ballad will rock out and the robust narrative will come back reflective and low key.

A case in point is Becoming Ghosts from the album The Open Road. The song was based on a poem written a number of years earlier. The poem records somewhat archly a secret liaison that takes place during a weekend amongst friends and its tone embodies a fleeting encounter that must never be repeated. However, Steve’s treatment drives the transmuted song along with a vengeance, replacing wistfulness with defiance so the original intentionality has no place in the new version.

Here’s the poem…


There’s a bucket of lights on the cliff top
squatting at the track’s end and there is
the great swarm of the summer dark.

Its night-roots are tugged by the sea;
its black branches clog the pathway.
We two climb blind, both naked still

under towelling robes, rime in hair and
on lashes, late love tattooed in wheals
of sand, communion salt on our tongues.

I smile into the darkness. Ahead of me,
a thick shadow, I sense you smiling too.
We’re drawn by obligation and now,

by shame a little: company is waiting on us –
over the breathing of the waves, voices rise
and scatter like sparks, music pumps. Soon

(another stumble upwards, one more turn
through gorse, its candles dimmed) we’ll be of
the world again, restored, reconstituted. And

from thereon, bleached by light, we’ll turn into
a pair of ghosts, doomed, blessed to haunt
each other through the falling of the years.

And here’s the song lyric and the song:


There’s a houseful of lights on the cliff top up high.
At the end of the track there it’s shining.
And the summer dark swarms like invisible wind
all around us where we two are climbing.

There’s sand on our skin and rime in our hair
and salt on our tongues as communion.
I smile in the dark; I know you’re smiling too
as we clamber towards the reunion.

It’s deep into night and we’re stumbling blind
with just candles of gorse here to guide us.
Voices rising like sparks: friends and lovers above
and a world that must shortly divide us.


As we rise into light and our story is told,
we take up our place in the chorus,
ghosts in the present, ghosts in the past,
ghosts through the long years before us.

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The trick is
to let slip
the ladder

that brought you
climbing to this
point. Unknot it,

let it fall away.
Then reach up
through the half-

dark and flick
the latch and let
the shutter fall.

No route back
down to how
it never was;

no liar’s light
above on how
it’s never going

to be. Just
this moment,
then the next

and darkness
either side.
Like any trick

worth knowing,
it’s a lifetime
in the learning.

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Conventionally, lovers should part
in a soft storm
of blown hopes
and unconsumed potential.
Tears blur
the old horizons
and refract a new world
where one is the number.

Some might perceive a beauty
in this crafted heartbreak, others
simply paradox:
from the grit of parting
the tears that form
are like pearls.

Or blood may be shed:
spitting slanders
the lovers may wheel and dive
like wolves in a corner,
the one heartsick
on the arsenic of betrayal,
the other punch-drunk
on guilt.

Little to choose, maybe,
between the vale of tears
and the killing floor,
but passion spent
and smoke where once there was fire
are markers for despair.

The truth is more prosaic.
Just after dawn
they’re sitting in a car.
The street is narrow
and the houses small and terraced.
The engine mutters
and he leaves it running,
a monologue all about departure.

A man clips a breakfast rose
and goes indoors.
“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may”,
she murmurs
and the silence shivers
but it doesn’t break.

He lifts her tear
onto his knuckle,
tastes its salt as last communion.
He floats the final words
and they remain face up,
their shadows hanging.
She steps out
and he drives away.


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The ice is melting.
It pinks and shivers
like thin music. Black

windows in the ground
go soft and vanish.
Cobweb dewdrops glow

like moonstones in the
dark blue before dawn.
You wake. You breathe

deep. First light, bright
like spray across the ceiling.
You’ve slept and dreamed

beneath this cracked map
of an inverted world
too long. You’ve read

your fortune in its
one-lane highways,
nowhere roads too long,

looking for compass north.
Now the ice is melting. Breathe
deep. Rise into light.

UP read by Dick Jones

FIRST LIGHT – Brian Eno and Harold Budd

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I saw Eternity the other night
Like a great ring of pure and endless light…

A dark treat, this sudden encounter with death.
Entering the unlit room and expecting
the shadow-flicker in his neck,
the guttering fuse, she saw instead
that he lay quite still and that
a fine silver dust hung in the air.
Silence boomed in her blood.  She forgot
to breathe.  She stared into the hole in time
through which he’d slipped .  She saw dark wings
that beat too fast for angels’, saw
the place where bones come from
and where bones go.  All this in a heartbeat –
wiser than scripture, swifter than light:
a destination on the other side of grief.

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