Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Roget's Thesaurus

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About a month ago my mum found a battered Roget’s Thesaurus in a charity shop. Or rather, instead of finding, she perhaps unearthed, happened upon, came across or brought to light this great big tome of a book with thick pages and a mint jacket.  There are plenty of phrases that could convey her sniffing out of interesting bargains, several more appropriate than others. All can be found under category 487: 'Discovery', and running through the nouns, verbs, colloquialisms and shades of meaning held within this one grouping confirms how invaluable a book it is.

My mum bought it, remembering an identical copy from her seventies' childhood. One of the few items transported from house to house as she moved, Roget became a dependable addition to each new setting. Her late mother (my dimly remembered grandmother) would, I'm told, sit, read and revel. New words were hooked and held up like flickering, silver-scaled fish. It was a text to consult whenever the right word was needed, or a new one pursued to colour and enhance vocabulary. That same cover still proudly proclaims in oxblood-hue lettering: “expand, enrich and invigorate your speech and writing with this comprehensive treasury of almost 250,000 words and phrases, grouped by ideas.”
There's something deeply nourishing in flicking through this thesaurus that treats words with such respect. The accumulation of words and phrases is both practical and delectable.  In among the synonyms and antonyms there are quotes ranging from Shakespeare to The Bible to Tennyson. Looking up something such as ‘Fashion’ brings the reader to an almost poem-like list: “spruceness, nattiness, neatness, trimness, sleekness, dapperness, jauntiness, sharpness, spiffiness, classiness, niftiness [all slang].” Every possible meaning is laid out; numbered neatly. Ten minutes of idle exploration is enough to kindle the imagination for days.

In the introduction to my edition, Ivor Brown discusses the frustration triggered by the “lack of the best word and sometimes even of a barely sufficient one.” Sometimes I find myself returning to the same phrases again and again, hemmed in by the confines of the familiar. Having a thesaurus allows one to step over this limitation and push out at the boundaries of language. It is a tool; picked up and used to shape a sentence or to clarify a theme.

Brown’s introduction reminds me of one of William Hazlitt’s most remarkable essays. In ‘On Familiar Style’ he writes that one should not use “the first word that offers, but the best in common use”; going on later to observe that, “It is not pomp or pretension, but the adaptation of expression to the idea, that clenches a writer’s meaning: - as it is not the size or glossiness of the materials, but their being fitted each to their place, that gives strength to the arch.” Although it may be said that luxuriating in words for words’ sake would have displeased Hazlitt (he dismissed “florid style” as a “spangled veil to conceal the want” of real ideas), I can identify with that need to find exactly the right one. It's like whittling a shape until it slots into the space that's waiting for it. No other will do. It could perhaps be jammed in, but then it would stick out awkwardly rather than being seamless.

When typing on my laptop, the thesaurus window is always open. I use it to look up alternatives or locate words that I can’t quite bring to mind. But this only goes so far. The results can feel restricted, as though more lies beyond. Meanings are broken down into short, useful lists. The less obvious possibilities will not be found onscreen, but here, in my huge block of a book with a sellotaped jacket. It smells of wooden floorboards, antique shops, sun-bleached fabric and warm forgetting. But reading it offers the opposite: remembering words, expanding their meanings. It's a book of knowledge and nuance. Long may its pages continue to elevate and inspire.  

Talking of writing and words, I have been very fortunate recently. Firstly, an article of mine was published on the Guardian Comment is Free, discussing the devastating factory collapse in Bangladesh & the ethics of fashion. It can be seen here
I was also delighted to find out that I had won the 2013 Hippocrates Prize for Young Poets. More on that soon...

To accessorize Roget I wore a mint green vintage 60s minidress bought from Beyond Retro when I was 13. It was one of the first items I featured on my blog, and thus (to me) exemplifies clothing longevity. I also have on a black vintage St Michael velvet blazer, satin heels from a charity shop and a bag made locally from recycled materials. 
Thought that a Gif was needed to capture the full effect of me being precarious in very high heels. 

Saturday, 11 May 2013


Revisiting a place, tracing its echoes, proves fruitful material for novelists. Brideshead Revisited opens with Charles unwittingly sent back to the stately home whose inhabitants provided wine, strawberries and complicated relationships.  To the Lighthouse is a novel broken in half by WWI and Mrs Ramsay’s death, a changed cast of characters returning to the island home after the interlude. In Great Expectations the marshes become the weight that Pip wants to ignore as he flees from his upbringing. Miss Havisham’s house, however, never changes, remaining fixed and stagnant from visit to visit. All demonstrate the importance of place. Settings wrap around characters, extending only as far as the eye of the author.

There are locations formed in the imagination of the writer, and then those that have been condensed from experience. The two often overlap. Laurie Lee, in his utterly extraordinary essay ‘Writing Autobiography’ talks of the process of “compression”, with years of living squeezed down into pages and paragraphs. Writing about memories is a means of revisiting and re-examining the past. Lee says:  “A day unremembered is like a soul unborn, worse than if it had never been. What indeed was that summer if not recalled? That journey? That act of love? To whom did it happen if it has left you with nothing? Certainly not to you. So any bits of warm life preserved by the pen are trophies snatched from the dark, are branches of leaves fished out from the flood, are tiny arrests of mortality.”

Revisiting can also be physical. A pilgrimage to a previously known place is a way of getting nearer to the past. My mum sometimes mentions wanting to take my brother and me to see one of her childhood homes, while I nurture a vague longing to go and stand on the street of the hospital where my surgery took place. It’s a very natural desire. We feel that these places hold a resonance waiting to be accessed.

Resonance is a word that crops up a lot when I’m writing. I’m not sure whether it’s the sound, with round vowels and sharp s’s, or the multifunctional use. It suggests meaning, quality, importance, echoes. But perhaps it’s easy to get caught in talk of echoes; the thrall of words enveloping thought. Easy to yoke the tenses together, cleverly forging a relationship between past and present when typing. But then our lives are composed of what we have experienced so far.  

Revisiting doesn’t have to be profound either. It might simply be habit: holidaying in the same place, or even just finding and then regularly going back to a favourite spot. This wood is one that my family visit each year. There is a brief seasonal window when it’s accessible. Our first excursion usually coincides with bluebell season, but this year’s staggered winter means that they are yet to flower. There is a comfort in its familiarity. The wood’s continuity seems to work as an anchor. Plants may be newly grown but that view is both reliable and recognizable. It is at its best when the sunlight slants through trees only just in leaf, leaving shadows like ink across shoots that crackle underfoot. It is even better with a sweep of blue topping the green. But I still have that to look forward to. 

We revisit clothes too. Some, like this charity shop bought skirt, are pulled out of the wardrobe over and over again. It has been worn with jumpers, pink shirts, shawls, loafers, heels, hats, crop-tops, gloves, pearls. Longevity can often mean versatility. But no matter how it is styled, it retains the absolute joy of airy fabric swishing against my legs - whether they are clad in thick tights during winter or left bare in summer. It's an item I've worn in all weathers and it has appeared on this blog several times in the last couple of years. Here it is accompanied by a Ben Sherman second hand shirt, £2 striped heels from a charity shop, vintage jewellery and a length of fabric that I hacked off the bottom of a skirt when it was being shortened - worn as a head scarf. The usual 'non-edited' images approach has been lifted temporarily, as my dad is currently enjoying the wonders of photoshop. 

Friday, 3 May 2013


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