6.2.15

Typewriter Music

The clouds are pink in the sky and I know what the old wives are thinking: Red in the morning, sailor’s warning. The clouds thicken and become bright red before the light in the room brightens and sharpens, and the clouds turn white. The strips of light angled by the venetian blind illuminate the desk of the typewriter. Another day of school holidays – another day of writing – has begun.

The sounds of morning silence: Birds, cars, a solitary morning express bus always being threatened with cancellation due to lack of patronage. An aeroplane flies overheard, probably heading to Melbourne.

I wind the desk clock which I had accidently left to run down. It starts its tinny ticking again.

I haven’t had breakfast, so that is attended to with the sound of plastic screw-top lids scraping on their threads and spoons ringing along faded Willow Pattern bowls. The television might go on: insipid advertising and things I’ve already seen on Twitter. The television might go off again.

The day starts in longhand, on paper with a fountain pen. Another sound of screw lid on the rim, this time of the Pelikan 4001 glass ink bottle: royal blue.

Quiet morning writer’s sounds. Paper being torn. Sticky tape dispenser dispersing tape – the metallic sound of the break the moment the cutter cuts – to fix the improperly torn pieces of paper. Pencils being sharpened, a scraping noise. The tinkling of paper clips, fingers searching for the right one amongst hundreds. The creak of the chair and the honing of the fountain pen nib across the cheap notepaper torn from a binder exercise book, eight millimetre ruled.

No typewriter music yet.

The clock ticks and the fountain pen clinks as it is laid back on its glass stand at the back of the desk. The clock is left to tick and the cool air is left to burn off as the sun edges up past the new second storey belonging to a neighbour.

When I come back the mail has come, the phone has rung – a proper one with a real, musical bell – and I have returned to make typewriter music.

The typewriter is brought forward from the back of the desk and its mechanical noises begin to sing and dance to a syncopated clock. The typewriter is a Triumph Perfekt, one from my collection of 44. Heavy and tactile, it is the closest, it seems, I’ll ever get to heavy machinery.

Words are punched out, letter by jerky letter. But there is still no typewriter music.

I consult the CD player. Piano Concerto No. 1 by Tchaikovsky is selected and the Deutsche Grammophon CD is inserted. I hit “play” with a strutting index finger and unnecessarily flamboyant wrist action.

Now there is typewriter music. Words punched out in time and orderly. Pages don’t fly out of the typewriter (they never do; theatrical, cinematic nonsense) but they roll through much more easily while Tchaikovsky, from his early cholera-caused grave, conducts the madness. The concerto’s tension builds or the symphony gets louder (Tchaikovsky’s No. 5 is a favourite), and then the typing gets quicker. The risk, as the brass section is brought out of hibernation, is that the purple haze surrounding the prose becomes impenetrably thick. But who cares? Who cares that the tea has gone cold? Who cares that ink has been spilled and the desk drawers are a mess? Who cares that the typewriter could do with a new ribbon and that I should eat lunch? No one. It doesn’t matter because Tchaikovsky is playing and I am writing and the clock is ticking.

No music equates to no magic, no fun, no quiet soft bits and loud, thumping triumphant bits – no dynamics. No music, no art, no literature: no Beat poetry, no Jazz Age, no typewriter music.


This blog post appeared as a part of the February Teens Can Write Too Blog Chain, with the prompt: “How does music relate to your writing?” For more information, visit: http://teenscanwritetoo.wordpress.com/2015/01/28/february-2015-tcwt-blog-chain and visit the other blogs in the chain:

6 – http://vergeofexisting.wordpress.com/ & http://jasperlindell.blogspot.com/ [You are here.]

7 – http://novelexemplar.wordpress.com/

8 – http://www.juliathewritergirl.com/

9 – http://musingsfromnevillesnavel.wordpress.com/ & http://freeasagirlwithwings.wordpress.com/

10 – http://ramblingsofaravis.wordpress.com/

11 – http://butterfliesoftheimagination.wordpress.com/

12 – http://randommorbidinsanity.blogspot.com/

13 – http://miriamjoywrites.com/ & http://whileishouldbedoingprecal.weebly.com/

14 – http://kirabudge.weebly.com/

15 – http://lilianmwoodall.wordpress.com/ & http://erinkenobi2893.wordpress.com/

16 – http://theedfiles.blogspot.com/ & http://fantasiesofapockethuman.blogspot.com/

17 – http://irisbloomsblog.wordpress.com/

18 – http://semilegacy.blogspot.com/ & http://from-stacy.blogspot.com/

19 – http://horsfeathersblog.com/

20 – http://clockworkdesires.wordpress.com/

21 – http://stayandwatchthestars.wordpress.com/ & http://arielkalati.blogspot.com/

22 – http://loonyliterate.com/ & http://www.mirrormadeofwords.wordpress.com/

23 – http://unikkelyfe.wordpress.com/

24 – http://themagicviolinist.blogspot.com/ & http://allisonthewriter.wordpress.com/

25 – http://missalexandrinabrant.wordpress.com/

26 – http://awritersfaith.blogspot.com/ & http://thelonglifeofalifelongfangirl.wordpress.com/

27 – http://thelittleenginethatcouldnt.wordpress.com/

6.1.15

Good Writing, Bad Writing

On the corner of George and Park Streets, right in the middle of Sydney, there is an old fashioned Woolworths. On the top floor there is a cafeteria that sells a cheap, hearty lunch. Looking out of the windows across the intersection to the Queen Victoria Building and watching people coming and going, heading out and heading in, one might feel inspired. One might realise that one required a good book.

On the second floor of the supermarket, between shelves marked Magazines and Stationery, there is a selection of books. They are exclusively paperbacks. No one is really looking at them, even though they are good value. Most are priced at four dollars each. But you get what you pay for: these are bad books.

Despite snippets of reviews from reputable newspapers, and even, in some cases, proclamations of best seller-status, these are not good books. They are not nearly as inspiring as the view of the people on the street from the top floor.

It was this sort of book selection at an Exeter train station kiosk that lead publisher Sir Allen Lane to found Penguin Books in 1935. “He just wanted a decent book to read...” the line from Penguin reads today. So now that decent books are available, why are these Woolworths books still around? Why are they still being written?

The answer as to why there are bad books still being written is very simple: there are bad writers. Generally, a bad book contains turgid dialogue, a plot that is either too unlikely or too predictable and characters which were printed on and then cut out of a cereal packet. There are bad books just as there are bad paintings. Not everyone can produce a masterpiece. This isn’t their fault; this is just the hard, unpleasant truth.

“Good prose,” George Orwell said, “is like a window pane.” One should be able to see through it. A good book has a few passages that stick with you and haunt you for a while – or perhaps forever – but the bulk of the words are forgotten; only the enthralling story remains. One should just be left with the story. A bad book, however, has language that is grubby and covered with grease streaks. It obscures the story and stays with you for all the wrong reasons. A bad book might be poorly edited or be filled with long, pointless passages in which the writer thinks they’re showing off. (They’re not.)

The ultimate litmus test for a bad book is dialogue. The best novelists have an ear for it. The dialogue they write sounds like the characters are actually saying it. It doesn’t jolt around in one’s mind as it is read. It doesn’t provoke the question, “Would anyone actually say that?”

There’s another thing that has to be considered though. The books for sale on the second floor of Woolworths in Sydney are published novels. They weren’t rejected and nor have they been pulped. People – out there somewhere – must therefore be reading them.

They must be easy reads, the books in Woolworths. Graham Greene might have called them Entertainments; not serious novels. People are welcome to read them. Perhaps they want to have a laugh, to not take things too seriously.

Of course not all books are literature with a capital “L”. There are books with no philosophical depth, life-changing meaning or artistic purpose. These books exist and many of them are also well-written. The Woolworths ones are not – there is too much uncomfortable, stilted dialogue to afford them any such recognition.

If dialogue and description passages (which are wholly irrelevant) are the two tell-tale signs of a bad book, they stand out as the two things which are generally poorly written in fiction. The thing which is usually the best written in fiction is the first sentence. A bad book with a good first sentence – which is like letting off the biggest firework first – might succeed to suck in the publisher and get it published. If it’s very lucky it might suck in the Booker Prize committee. Good books with a good opening sentence will stand ever above.

  • “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” wrote Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities;
  • “When I was quite small I would sometimes dream of a city – which was strange because it began before I knew what a city was,” wrote John Wyndham in The Chrysalids;
  • “It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen,” wrote George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four;
  • “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there,” wrote L.P. Hartley in The Go-Between; and,
  • “George Washington Crosby began to hallucinate eight days before he died,” wrote Paul Harding in Tinkers.

Each of those sentences is designed to suck that inspired person from the top of Woolworths into the story, to make them wonder what comes next. A lot of thought has gone into each word, put simply, and with every intention of leading you on further. A readable novel must merely make you read the next sentence – again and again; it’s a bonus if it is a good novel.

There is nothing quite as subjective as the classification of good and bad fiction writing, but I would be pleased if good first sentences were able to lead me in and then proceed to not subject me to hard-as-rock dialogue and sleep-inducing descriptions.


This post appeared as a part of the January 2015 Teens Can Write Too blog chain. The topic was, “What is something you feel is generally written well in fiction? What is something you feel is generally written poorly?” The other participants were:

Days in January:
5 http://whileishouldbedoingprecal.weebly.com/
6 http://jasperlindell.blogspot.com.au/ [You are here.]
7 http://erinkenobi2893.wordpress.com/ & http://nasrielsfanfics.wordpress.com/
8 http://www.miriamjoywrites.com/
9 http://ramblingsofaravis.wordpress.com/
10 http://semilegacy.blogspot.com/
11 http://kirabudge.weebly.com/
12 http://thelittleenginethatcouldnt.wordpress.com/
13 http://maralaurey.wordpress.com/
14 http://dynamicramblings.wordpress.com/
15 http://theedfiles.blogspot.com.au/
16 http://horsfeathersblog.wordpress.com/
17 http://juliathewritergirl.com/
18 http://butterfliesoftheimaginationa.wordpress.com/
19 http://gallopingfree.wordpress.com/
20 http://alwaysopinionatedgirl.wordpress.com/
21 http://deorahcocheleau.wordpress.com/
22 http://irisbloomsblog.wordpress.com/
23 http://clockworkdesires.wordpress.com/
24 http://introspectioncreative.wordpress.com/
25 http://wanderinginablur.blogspot.com/
26 http://anotefromthenerd.wordpress.com/
27 http://randommorbidinsanity.wordpress.com/
28 http://unikkelyfe.wordpress.com/

Phoneless Café? Brilliant!

In the Northern Territory – that state with a wild reputation in the hearts and minds of the rest of Australia – there is a wildly different café that will charge you a two dollar fee to use your mobile phone or other electronic device on the premises. This fee will be donated to a charity dedicated to families.

The knee-jerk reaction from my compatriots in the age bracket of a late ‘90s birth is that this is a stupid idea. Their not-so-well articulated arguments against it are that it is a nice and cute way to go promptly out of business.

Despite being a similar age to these people who become restive at the thought of being without their phones, I disagree. A café which actively promotes the non-use of phones, iPads and other gadgets is, I think a bastion of hope.

Comments on Facebook – perhaps posted from a smartphone – go along the lines of, Well, a phone is an important communication tool and sometimes you just need to access it – you shouldn’t have to pay for the privilege. Though, if you can’t survive the duration of a coffee without “keeping in touch with the universe”, there is a problem. And if there is something important – and I mean really important – it will be important enough for you to leave the café for.

Of course, I have a phone and I use it regularly – even, I’m sorry to say, late into the night – but I am strongly attracted to the phone-free café.

Besides, there would be other benefits to a non-phone friendly café. Indeed, something totally foreign and scary might occur, not that there is any guarantee of it. Perhaps strangers – random patrons of the café who come in regularly – might talk to each other. This is shocking, I know, but although it is something that I, as a 16-year-old, have only ever been able to witness in re-runs of Cheers on digital television, I think otherwise would-be strangers talking and meeting in a café is something that wouldn’t be too bad at all.

Never mind about strangers, though, there are friends you’ve already got to worry about first. I feel disheartened when, while having coffee with a friend, the first thing they do is get their phone out and check it. Is my conversational prowess in fact boring? Are there other people they would rather be talking with? Is that what they’re doing on their phones? Am I just the fall back option?

This is not about some quaint ideal of living in the past and returning to a simpler time. It wasn’t simpler. How did people organise to go out with each other when they didn’t even have a landline telephone at home? That’s impressive, but not something I suggest we return to. There’s no thin edge of the wedge effect imminent here. No, I’m just suggesting that after we’ve organised to meet up we could actually talk to each other or even open ourselves up to the possibility of meeting some new.

With that, my best wishes to the Cornucopia café at the Northern Territory Museum and Art Gallery.

29.12.14

Learning from Literature

I

Herman Hesse once wrote that the third dimension of history is fiction. And it is history which we are told to turn to when we are in need of sage advice, mistake-preventing insight and some wisdom from those who have gone before us. Would it matter if these were fictional stories? Does it matter that despite best efforts to strip something back to facts, there will always remain a small touch of embellishment? No, it doesn’t, which explains my fascination with literature – fiction, stories, make-believe, embellished histories – because they provide much from which I have learned; they provide, in the case of good literature, insight just as profound as if it were to have really happened.

Novel studies are profoundly hated by students because they seem pointless, so frankly why should they bother? They aren’t done for no reason, as education isn’t just some fun lark to keep kids of the streets. There is a depth of meaning, a purpose. The fact is, you learn from books. I have learned from books, you have probably learned from books – but only from good books. Bad books are like bad teachers: often exciting, often fun, but totally hopeless when it comes to imparting knowledge; you might remember them but not because of what you have learned.

In his essay Why I Write, George Orwell speaks of his deep, inexplicable motives for writing but makes it clear that “all writers are vain, selfish and lazy, and at the bottom of their motives there lies a mystery.” Orwell adds that “writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a bout of some horrible illness.” Orwell hypothesises that the only reason such a thing would ever be undertaken is because a writer is driven by some unexplained demon. I think that the only reason anyone would ever embark on a book is because sub-consciously they have got something to lay out, in the hope others may learn.

It is readily apparent when a book does have something to offer and something from which the reader can learn. There are books written for different levels of learning, too; this is why children are enthralled by children’s books, but older readers returning to them find them full of obvious outcomes. While I have drifted away from young adult fiction, it is interesting to see my friends remain totally enthralled by it. Adult books still have an air of the foreign about them, in their eyes. But it is to adult books I turn when I’m looking for something edgier, more engaging – and, ultimately, more educational. This is not to say that I find young adult fiction to be bad; indeed, there is some high-calibre story-telling going on, but I find myself wanting more where my peers didn’t.

There is the right book for the right time. One of my teachers once told me to read Lord of the Flies by William Golding, but then stopped himself and said that I should wait a year before I did. Dutifully, I waited a year and then read it. He was right. If I had read it a year earlier I wouldn’t have understood half of what was going on. There was a lot that occurred in that year that I saw reflected in the novel, and there was, therefore, more I learned from it. One shouldn’t rush reading. There is time to get around to it, to build up to it, otherwise it becomes merely words – which good, educational literature is not.

II

I have read a number of books which I have learned much form. Among them:

  • Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell;
  • The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse;
  • Eucalyptus by Murray Bail;
  • The Plains by Gerald Murnane;
  • My Brother Jack by George Johnston;
  • The Chrysalids by John Wyndham;
  • Accident by Nicholas Mosley; and
  • Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates.

Of course, there have been others, but these are the examples that stick in my mind.

They are all novels interestingly, even though some are quite experimental.They are all very different – the subject matter varies wildly. There are also three Australian writers – Bail, Johnston and Murnane – which perhaps reflects my Australian heritage; and perhaps these authors would not have as profound an impact of readers overseas.

From these books I have learned about manipulation, beauty, love, absurdity, fortune, misfortune, desire, tragedy and blasphemy. There is so much encompassed in these books that I would offer the list above as a reading list – a difficult one, but one worth embarking on. (After all, there is always the urge to share books which have had an impact on you, hoping that the experience can be replicated and shared – producing a common bond.)

But what have I learned about writing? The styles of the books are wildly different. Some are punchier than others. The Glass Bead Game is much slower than Accident, but you could tell this from just looking at the books: The Glass Bead Game is nearly four centimetres thick, Accident is just one. These books, though, are the lengths they need to be: they are comfortable in their clothes, they’re well-tailored. This is the common thread. All of the books which have ever had an impact on me are well-tailored: they are all the right length. W. Somerset Maugham said that there were three rules for writing a novel; nobody knows what they are. Indeed, it would be difficult to define what the right length for a novel is, because it seems to be more like a feel you have to have. This is a significant lesson I have learned about writing: make sure it sits well in its form.

All of the books I’ve listed show that writing must be comfortable in its own form. This is the secret, I think, to good writing: it must be comfortable telling the story it’s telling.

III

When it boils down to it there is no way to tell if something really did occur before you were born. There are accounts of course, but it could be a pack of concerted lies. The German word for history is the same as the word for story. Where lies the difference? Fact morphing into fiction morphing back into fact. Fiction happens in the mind – just as history has to be conjured – and if you can enter it fully, there is much to learn, as I have always found. But only if the reader is willing.


This blog post is a part of the Teens Can Write Too December 2014 blog chain. The (thankfully open-ended) prompt was, “What works of fiction have taught you by example, and what did they teach you?” The other participants in the chain were:

5thhttp://thelittleenginethatcouldnt.wordpress.com/

6thhttp://nasrielsfanfics.wordpress.com/

7thhttps://erinkenobi2893.wordpress.com/

8thhttp://introspectioncreative.wordpress.com/

9thhttp://semilegacy.blogspot.com/

10thhttp://kirabudge.weebly.com/

11thhttp://whileishouldbedoingprecal.weebly.com/

12thhttp://randomosityofeden.wordpress.com/

13thhttp://musingsfromnevillesnavel.wordpress.com/

14thhttp://www.alwaysopinionatedgirl.wordpress.com/

15thhttp://www.juliathewritergirl.wordpress.com/

16thhttp://miriamjoywrites.com/

17thhttp://horsfeathersblog.wordpress.com/

18thhttp://unironicallyexcited.wordpress.com/

19thhttp://theboardingblogger.wordpress.com/

20thhttp://stayandwatchthestars.wordpress.com/

21sthttp://unikkelyfe.wordpress.com/

22ndhttp://fantasiesofapockethuman.blogspot.com/

23rdhttp://lilyjenness.blogspot.com/

24thhttp://oliviarivers.wordpress.com/

25th – [No posts today!]

26thhttp://butterfliesoftheimagination.wordpress.com/

27thhttp://missalexandrinabrant.wordpress.com/

28thhttp://www.pamelanicolewrites.com

29thhttp://jasperlindell.blogspot.com.au/

30thhttp://maralaurey.wordpress.com/ and http://theedfiles.blogspot.com/

23.12.14

O! Silly Shopping Season!

It is the second last shopping day before Christmas; the day before Christmas Eve. In a cheap shop which people are walking out of with piles of cheap wrapping paper and novelty, Santa-adorned boxes, a young boy is visibly upset. His mother, burdened with department stores bags and a haggard face, is sheparding him through cramped aisles.

“You’re not getting it,” she yells at him, as they boy walks around and stamps on the spot, not able to express his immense frustration at this joyous time of the year.

“You’ve got enough stuff already. You don’t need anything new.”

In the mall at large, the escalators transport a constant line of consumers. Sunglasses perched on the tops of heads, hands holding bags, they crane their necks, looking at shops they’re being mechanically moved past. Have I remembered all the presents? Would I find something for Richard down there?

On the floor it is a matter of the quick and the dead. The quick are in and out, weaving around, ducking past the slow; they are narrowly missing gaps between poles and trolleys. They smile as they move with their head: they feel ever so efficient, pleased with themselves.

In front of me in a line for an ATM that snakes along, two young women – 18? 19? 20? – are discussing their upcoming party. “Last time I was at your house,” one was saying, “I don’t think we bothered with shot glasses. We were just drinking straight from the bottle!”

“You know why that is? Because I don’t have any shot glasses.”

“Well, we’d better get some, hadn’t we?”

They both look at each other, laughing.

In the newsagent’s, they are wearing elf hats. Excited regulars come in brandishing lotto tickets, their expressions giving away their secret hope of a life-changing Christmas windfall. Behind the counter they are sick of it and just want to get to the end of their shift.

Looking at frying pans, two middle aged women are pondering presents. “What about this for Brenda?” They puzzle over the handle, the non-stick surface and finally the price tag.

“We’ll find something better somewhere else.”

In the car park, tinny, worn-out speakers are belting out jazzified versions of Christmas classics. If the desired effect is to impart Christmas cheer, it isn’t working. Profanities greet the ears of unsuspecting young children like lumps of coal thrown down the chimney.

One family, lead by a frustrated mother, has found a spot and is heading in to see Santa. The youngest, a girl, is excited. The eldest, a boy, couldn’t give a rats.

“He isn’t even the real Santa,” the older brother is saying.

“Shut up. Don’t ruin Christmas,” the mother tells him.

Back inside, Santa is looking hot and tired behind his beard. His eyes are working to remain open for outrageous gift requests – a pony anyone? – and for countless photos. Each flash half blinds him, his eyes stuck open.

Perhaps Santa is frustrated, stuck here in a spending palace, as the big day is only two sleeps away.

11.12.14

The Story-teller Under The Choir

A Story For Christmas

The cold, dark night is singing. Some fifty miles south-west of Tehran an almost forgotten old man sits on his steps in an almost forgotten town; he is sitting under the choir. Every year he sits there. Each year he tells the story.

“Many, may years ago,” he begins with a deep, gravelly voice, “a star appeared in the sky. Three Magi set out to honour the king who had been born under that star. The three Magi – Jaspar, Melchior and Balthasar – became the worshippers of Fire.

“They took three gifts on their journey to find the king. If he takes Gold, they said, he is an earthly king; if he takes Incense he is of God; if he takes of the Myrrh he is a healer.

“The three Magi journeyed for days, each night stopping to see the new born king’s star rise, ensuring they were still following it. It came to pass that they arrived where the Child was born. The spriteliest and youngest of the Magi went in first to see the Child. He found the Child of his own age. He marvelled. The Middle Magi followed and did the same. The eldest Magi went in last, pensively. He marvelled, also. The three gathered outside and agreed to go in together. Doing so, they found the Child of his own age – thirteen days old.

“The Magi adored the child and presented to him their gifts, watching to see which he would take.

“The child accepted all of their gifts.”

The story-teller sits back and looks to the music.

“The child’s mother gave the Magi a small box and they headed towards their own land. As they journeyed home, the star that had guided them sank and faded.

“When the Magi were close to their own land, they opened the box and found in it a small, grey pebble. They were disappointed.

“The youngest Magi picked up the pebble between the tips of his fingers and threw it behind him without looking. The other Magi didn’t stop him – they too believed it was useless.

“But the pebble landed in a puddle left by almost forgotten rain. The Three Magi, still walking towards home, felt a flash behind them. They turned to see the puddle had been consumed by light – the pebble had turned to fire.

“The Magi took the fire with them and it burns, still, to this day, not far from here.”

The story tellers feels exhausted. The story his father and told him and his father’s father had told his father had been spoken. Once every year, as it always had.

“That’s impossible!” one of the bright, young ones in the audience says, rolling his eyes and looking to his friends for support.

“It isn’t,” the story-teller says.

He stands up slowly on his step, pulls a matchbox from his coat pocket, extracts a small, grey pebble and throws it with his wrist across, over the heads of his audience into the town’s crumbling, stone well.

Enveloped in music, there is fire.

 

A return the story of the Three Kings with a different, broader focus, based on a tale Marco Polo brought back from his travels. It was written for, and spoken at, a Christmas Festival in Canberra on 11 December 2014.

8.11.14

Talking Shop [Lifting]

“I don’t think that many people are doing it anymore,” I’m told one recent Friday afternoon, sitting on a melamine chair in a Civic food court. These “people” are well off, private school-attending, Canberran teenagers.

We were talking about shop lifting, run-ins with security guards, being banned from Woolworths for 12 months. There was no shock revealed in the tone of my companions. Juvenile detention is seen as something to be avoided, but no a reality needing to be reconciled with.

“I didn’t ever do it to small stores,” my companion declares. “Only big places like David Jones.”

Is that because they can afford to lose what you’re taking?

“Yeah, something like that.”

I ask about what people are taking. Clothes? Electronics? Cigarettes? Shoes? I wasn’t far off the mark.

“All the normal stuff, I guess. But energy drinks are easy.” I was told two mutual acquaintances of ours had perfected the art of stealing energy drinks from Woolworths. “They’d stick the bottles down their pants and just walk out. It worked for ages until they forgot to check the aisle was clear. Someone saw them and now they’re banned for twelve months.”

The punishments vary, but everyone we talked about had avoided a court appearance. Some had avoided getting caught at all; it seems that teenage shop lifting is a game of luck, not skill. “When I got caught,” my companion told me, “I was lucky because I was only 16. I just got a warning. When you’re 17 you get charged.” He has since turned 17.

Does this worry people? Does it deter them from shoplifting?

“Not really. The thing that scares most people off are the buzzers on the way out of the shops. But if they go off and you disappear into a crowd, they can’t do anything about it.”

I’m told this didn’t deter a “bunch of Year Nines” who spent a period of time going into JB-HiFi and coming out listening to music, on headphones they’d just pinched. A few got caught and the craze died down, but the 15-year-olds still have their trophies.

“The easiest way to steal a T-Shirt,” I’m told now that my companion has loosened up, “is to take the one you want and a size bigger into the change rooms. You put the one you want on, and take the one that’s too large back.” Sort of like an alibi, I suppose. “Then you just walk out.”

The flow of the conversation is interrupted. “Have you ever had a cigarette, Jasper?” No, I say. But where are teenagers getting them? “The ones who look old enough just go in and buy them. But make sure you go to a dodgy, little shop. The Asian ones work the best.” Like the one near the bus interchange? “Yeah, that’s where a few people go. And if you get  asked for ID you just say you haven’t got it; they don’t usually care. Some won’t sell them to you but they’re still easy to get.”

“I quite like smoking,” my companion adds. “But I don’t do it that often. Only when I’m drinking. Not like [Name Redacted – Another Mutual Acquaintance.] He’s totally addicted.” He’s old enough to buy them himself. It’s a combination of beard beginnings and a lip piercing.

He’s the same person, I’m told, who once walked into a shoe shop bare foot and brazenly walked out with a new pair of shoes sans receipt.

But why?

“It’s fun.”

To be honest, I wasn’t expecting any philosophical insights. Those who are shoplifting are more worried about the security guard remembering them from shops they’ve taken from than the moral implications of what they’re doing.

8.11.2014

20.9.14

The Most Complicated Maths in the World

The most complicated maths in the world is used by teachers to calculate final marks for their students. I’m not sure whether teachers recognise this, and that is perhaps why they struggle to answer the time-honoured question of, What will I use this maths for when I’m older?

It would be cynical of me to suggest that there are teachers who simply invent numbers that translate into grades. I’m well aware that this isn’t true. Instead, teachers have developed magical grade-calculating systems, which only they can understand.

“Now,” a teacher will their class, “for this assignment you’ll receive a mark out of twenty, which is broken down into fifty marks which will be awarded against the criteria which I’ve set out (don’t ignore this aspect); this will then be calculated against the other marks for the other piece of assessment you’ve already completed in this unit, which, as you know, have been marked out of 35. Your final mark for the unit will be out of 16, which will be translated to a percentage and your final grade.”

Er, what?

There must be some method to the madness, so it’s always a relief to get to a maths lesson – the bastion of logic and clear-cut facts, towering over arse-acquired hypotheticals.

In maths, you are right, half-right or totally wrong. Attainable marks are conducted in orderly multiples of ten. There is no calculus or projection geometry involved in inventing them.

(If only teachers knew and recognised the complexity of their work. If they did, they could tell students they would need maths in their post-Muck Up Day lives. “It will allow you,” they could say, “to come up with assignment marks of your very own! Cut out the middleman!”)

So, why is it that the humanities and languages departments (usually) create more work for themselves in a field that seems, by its very nature, to be out of their comfort zones? While maths is, unlike its very nature, very simple.

Go figure.

Actually, don’t bother.