Updated on February 17, 2017
This week: the literature/music crossover continues with five more songs inspired by books
Maybe it’s all that time on tour buses, but musicians sure read a lot. If you missed them, here are my posts on Bands with literary names and Songs named after books: part 1 but, for now, let’s get straight into part 2.
“Wuthering Heights” by Kate Bush (from “The Kick Inside”, 1978)
You KNEW it would be here and of course this is the one that springs to mind for most people. In many ways this Kate Bush song is the ideal soundtrack to Emily Brontë’s desperate, gut-wrenching story of doomed lovers Cathy and Heathcliff, and their wild, windswept romance – if you’re a teenage girl, certainly. The song tells the story from Cathy’s point of view, focusing on the moment when her icy ghost tries to get back into Wuthering Heights during the night, to seek forgiveness from Heathcliff. Both Brontë and Bush were very young when they wrote their respective works and there’s definitely something about both book and song that appeals to youth and romantic idealism – the unchecked passion, the lack of self-consciousness, and the disregard for convention and formality – and Bush has previously described how strongly she identifies with the novel: “This young girl in an era when the female role was so inferior and she was coming out with this passionate, heavy stuff… Also when I was a child I was always called Cathy not Kate and I just found myself able to relate to her as a character. It’s so important to put yourself in the role of the person in a song. There are no half measures. When I sing that song I am Cathy.” There are other literary allusions in Bush’s work, including “The Infant Kiss”, which was inspired by Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw”, and “The Sensual World”, a reimagining of Molly Bloom’s sleepy soliloquy at the end of James Joyce’s “Ulysses”, which has Molly “stepping out of the page/into the sensual world”.
“Brave New World” by Iron Maiden (from “Brave New World”, 2000)
According to Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson, the song was inspired by his rereading of Aldous Huxley’s 1932 dystopian classic, just as the internet began to take off. The idea that physical reality and natural beauty could become redundant in favour of digital images and virtual simulations struck him as dangerously close to Huxley’s terrifying vision, an idea reflected in the song’s opening lines: “Dying swans, twisted wings, beauty not needed here”, as well as more direct allusions to the book: “You are planned and you are damned in this brave new world”. In fact Iron Maiden are perhaps the most literary band out there, with an impressively broad reading list – authors whose work they refer to include William Golding, Lord Tennyson, Edgar Allan Poe, Samuel Coleridge, Frank Herbert, Umberto Eco, John Wyndham and Joseph Conrad – which is a pretty great list.
“Fairytale of New York” by The Pogues featuring Kirsty MacColl (from If I Should Fall From Grace with God, 1988)
This song takes its title from “A Fairytale of New York”, the 1973 novel by Irish-American author JP Donleavy – but the story told by its lyrics has little to do with the book itself. OK, so most of you can probably recite the entire thing but, to recap, The Pogues’ most famous single relives an argument between an Irish immigrant couple (but are they still a couple?) living in New York. Having arrived in the city in their younger days full of hopes and dreams, they now blame each other for their squalid existences before ending on a tender note. According to banjo player Jem Finer, the idea came from his wife, and was based on a true story involving some friends of theirs. Finer and singer Shane MacGowan then spent two years perfecting both lyrics and music, so complex did the song become. When it came to choosing a title, Finer suggested the name of the book he was reading at the time and MacGowan apparently visited Donleavy to ask for his blessing. But, although Donleavy is a native New Yorker whose parents were Irish immigrants, his novel bears little relation to the song. In fact the protagonist, Cornelius Christian, is very much single, his wife having died on their journey back to New York after an extended stay in Europe. Indebted to the funeral parlour that buried her, he takes a job there, and thus begins a blackly comic tale of scurrilous behaviour and bawdy encounters as he cavorts his way around the city, drifting between obnoxious vulgarity and moments of touching clarity and insight into life, death and the human condition. All that said, Christian is not an especially sympathetic character and the book exposes the seedier side of the city – so I guess in that sense novel and song do have something in common.
“Venus in Furs” by The Velvet Underground (from “The Velvet Underground & Nico”, 1967)
Published in 1870, “Venus in Furs” is an erotic novel by Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, concerning sexual submission and control – the word masochism derives from his name. Even though he really was a masochist, Sacher-Masoch was horrified by the coinage, considering himself a serious writer, political activist and a champion of women’s rights. The song makes direct references to the book (“Strike, dear mistress, and cure his heart”), even name-checking main character Severin, who was loosely based on Sacher-Masoch himself. Lou Reed updates Severin’s lover’s clothes, however, exchanging her satins and linens for “Shiny, shiny boots of leather”.
“The Far Pavilions” by …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead (from “The Century of Self”, 2013)
Here’s another example of a song and book that make pretty odd bedfellows. “The Far Pavilions”, published in 1978, is an India-set romantic epic by MM Kaye, about Ash, a British orphan who is brought up as a native Indian before being sent back to the UK for military training. After returning to India as part of the British Raj, he has an identity crisis, embarks on a seemingly hopeless love affair with childhood sweetheart Anjuli, and becomes involved in the Second Anglo-Afghan War, before finally setting off for a Himalayan paradise where he and Anjuli can live in peace (the “Far Pavilions”). The story is set against the backdrop of “The Great Game” (Britain’s 19th-century stand-off with Russia over land in central and southern Asia) and it’s this, apparently, that inspired punk/prog rock group …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead. Singer Conrad Keely has said, “I saw a lot of parallels, reading the book, about what’s going on in Afghanistan now and how the Khyber Pass has always been a playground for war, ever since the time of Alexander the Great. The song is role playing in a way, expressing the wistful feeling of trying to live your life past the place you were born, to try and reach a distant goal or dream, which the character in the book is doing.” In all honesty the song, which has a kind of 90s alternative rock vibe with messy distorted guitars, a hard-edged melody and shouty singing, does not exactly sound wistful or dreamy, but the lyrics are pretty clear: “You can’t let it get you down/You were raised on the edge of this unnamed ghost town/There, a million far pavilions/Gaze down from upon their heights/Where their eyes, full of wonder, wait to greet you/As you rise, feel the world you know divided up/Above and below.”
Updated on February 10, 2017
Music has always been linked to literature, from Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet” to Verdi’s “La Traviata” to Iron Maiden’s “Lord of the Flies”. Here we look at five songs inspired by books (five more next week)
Following my post on bands with literary names, I thought I’d look at songs that take their titles from books (more or less). I could have done songs with literary themes, but we would have been here ALL DAY, as there are so many of them. So I kept the criteria pretty narrow to make it easier to choose. Here are my favourites – some great songs, some great books, and some intriguing cultural crossovers…
“Charlotte Sometimes” by The Cure (from “Staring at the Sea”, 1986)
I love both the song and the novel here. “Charlotte Sometimes” by Penelope Farmer (published in 1969) is a children’s book in which schoolgirl Charlotte travels between her own time (in the 50s) and 1918, swapping places every night with Clare, a quiet, serious girl who slept in the same bed 40 years previously. The girls are very different people but they look similar and, amongst the adolescent rabble of an all-girls boarding school, hardly anyone notices what’s happening, especially when Charlotte eventually gets stuck in the past. I suppose the book is largely about identity – and especially the way in which girls are, or were, moulded into identikit young women. There’s an unsettling tension between Charlotte’s fear of being unable to get back to the present and the way in which she is able to accept what is happening to her and adapt to her surroundings – on the one hand she has no choice, but the other slightly more sinister explanation is that she has been brought up to conform, to modify her behaviour and personality to whatever is expected of her. The Cure’s song, which uses lines from the book, reflects the slightly unsettling tone: “Night after night she lay alone in bed/Her eyes so open to the dark/The streets all looked so strange/They seemed so far away/But Charlotte did not cry”.
“The Wild Boys” by Duran Duran (from “Arena”, 1984)
If my childhood memories of Duran Duran are accurate, they were (and are) a superior but fairly lightweight pop band who mostly sang about women. They were not, to my mind, the obvious choice to write the soundtrack for the film version of William S. Burroughs’ 1971 novel “The Wild Boys: A Book of the Dead” – a somewhat challenging story, written as a series of fragmentary dream-like (or nightmarish) scenes, which include merciless, horrific violence and pages and pages of graphic but empty (gay) sex. There is not much of a plot (or much in the way of conventional grammar or punctuation), but the narrative gradually coalesces into a disturbing story of a futuristic dystopian society, in which the Wild Boys (there are no girls) live a kind of mystical but brutal existence punctuated with ferocious savagery as they battle the repressive forces around them by any means necessary. Duran Duran were asked to write the song by video director Russell Mulcahy, who wanted to make a full-length film based on the book. In the end he only got as far as Duran Duran’s “Wild Boys” video – and, watching it now, that’s probably just as well.
“For Whom the Bell Tolls” by Metallica (from “Ride The Lightning”, 1984)
Metallica probably come second only to Iron Maiden (who we’ll be looking at next week) when it comes to literature-inspired rock. “For Whom the Bell Tolls” references a scene in Ernest Hemingway’s book of the same name, in which a band of guerrilla fighters is bombed by fascist planes during the Spanish Civil War. The story concerns an American who fights on the Republican side with a small but unpredictable group of anti-fascists, and it focuses on the brutality, hopelessness and human sacrifice required to make small and possibly insignificant gains against the enemy. The physical and existential horror of war explored in this song was a theme the band returned to a few years later with “One”, inspired by Dalton Trumbo’s 1939 protest novel “Johnny Got His Gun”, in which a soldier comes back to consciousness in hospital to realise he no longer has limbs or a face, and that he is deaf, dumb and blind – literally a fate worse than death. (“Darkness/Imprisoning me/All that I see/Absolute horror/I cannot live/I cannot die/Trapped in myself/Body my holding cell”). PLUS! Guitarist Kirk Hammett told “Rolling Stone” that song/album title “Ride the Lightning” came from Stephen King’s book “The Stand”: “There was this one passage where this guy was on death row and said he was waiting to ‘ride the lightning.’ I remember thinking, ‘Wow, what a great song title.'”
“Everything’s Illuminated” by Nerina Pallot (from “The Graduate”, 2009)
Londoner Nerina Pallot (above) is a singer/songwriter who has never really hit the big time, despite a consistent output of pretty, atmospheric songs over the past 10 years and a truly gorgeous voice. She has said that this song is about “where we find God in ourselves”, and was inspired by an early passage in “Everything is Illuminated”, Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2003 debut novel about a Jewish college student searching for answers about his family’s past. Beyond that, the song and book have little in common and, indeed, Foer’s novel is not the obvious inspiration for a pop song. A hugely ambitious, structurally complex book, it bursts with weighty themes, gets very creative with language, and is peppered throughout with allusions to pop culture, high-brow literature and everything in between.
“Neon Bible” by Arcade Fire (from “Neon Bible”, 2007)
The band have stated that the song (and album) were not named after the book, although you do wonder if the phrase was subconsciously lodged in someone’s brain – it’s not exactly prosaic. But I’m including it anyway because the story behind this book is so fascinating and so sad. “The Neon Bible” was written in 1954 by the then 16-year-old John Kennedy Toole, who would later go on to write the Pulitzer-prize-winning “A Confederacy of Dunces”. Both books were rejected during Toole’s lifetime and were published posthumously, after Toole’s suicide in 1969 at the age of 31. Following the success of “Confederacy”, the publishing rights to “The Neon Bible” became the subject of a bitter legal battle between Toole’s mother, Thelma, and some distant relatives on his father’s side who wanted to cash in on his sudden fame. It was finally published in 1989, after Thelma’s death and against her wishes. Toole himself described the book as “a grim, adolescent, sociological attack upon the hatreds caused by the various Calvinist religions in the South” – and indeed it’s a coming-of-age tale set against a backdrop of bigotry, intolerance and hysterical moral judgement. The song is not much more jolly to be honest (“It’s in the neon Bible, the neon Bible/Not much chance for survival/If the Neon Bible is right”) but still, it’s a great album all in all.
Next week: 5 more songs named after books – any guesses?
Updated on January 20, 2017
With so many great new books around, plus several centuries’ worth of classics, it’s not surprising our reading lists can get a little crazy. Here’s how I’m trying to keep mine under control…
Photograph by Klaye Morrison
Every December the book-of-the-year round-ups appear and I feel frustrated and disheartened because I won’t have read a single one. And in this content-driven world there are now dozens of them – the book department’s list and the famous writers’ list and the readers’ list and the teachers’ list and on and on it goes. We have the best novels, best factual books, best debuts, best books about talking animals, or whatever. Then comes January and it starts again – the books to look forward to, the new writers to look out for, the comebacks, the sequels, and the books-to-read-before-the-film-comes-out.
And although such lists are catnip to me, I force myself to ignore them all because, obviously, I already own dozens and dozens of books that I’ve not yet read, plus a reading list that runs to several sheets of A4. I have unread books from my student days that I do honestly want to get to, as well as a heap of modern classics and contemporary novels that I haven’t been able to resist buying. I wrote here about the challenges of finding time to read, and although I’ve got a bit better at prioritising I’m still prone to two-pages-and-I’m-asleep syndrome – so progress remains slow…
For that reason I try to only add new books to my reading list if they sound totally unmissable (in the past couple of years, “H is for Hawk” by Helen Macdonald, “The Girls” by Emma Cline, “The Vegetarian” by Han Kang) or they’re by a favourite author (“How be Both” by Ali Smith, “The Blazing World” by Siri Hustvedt, “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt). But I often come across mentions of classics that have always intrigued me, or I feel I should have read, and it’s hard not to put them on the pile, too. And so the list keeps growing, and I never seem to get anywhere near the end of it. Which drives me crazy because I know I am only scratching the surface of what’s out there as it is. And I want to read all kinds of books – friends’ recommendations and random things that happen to catch my eye and foreign bestsellers and cult classics – and anything else that draws me in.
But if I still haven’t read “Great Expectations” or “Vanity Fair” or “War and Peace” (I know, I know), how can I justify picking up some random debut that may or may not be worth it? Part of my problem is that I have an obsession with context and the idea that, to really appreciate something, you need to know and understand what came before it, too. A good book is rarely a solitary work of art – it has a whole hinterland of influences that might affect its meaning or at least the way you react to it or interpret it. Which means I am always berating myself for not having read every significant work of literature – even though that’s kind of ridiculous.
So… I need a plan. A plan to get through a good sweep of the classics without restricting myself solely to books of the past. I need to power through the books both on my shelf and my reading list and then, THEN, reach the ultimate utopia of being able to pick up any book I fancy and just say, “Yeh, I’m going to read this next.” It’s going to take years, literally, but oh my goodness, how good would that be? OK, so here’s what I’m going to do:
1. Alternate classic and contemporary fiction
Due to the way my bookshelves are organised, I have pre-1940s fiction on one side and post-war books/non-fiction on the other. So I’m trying to switch between the two for variety, and it seems to work pretty well. I reckon that if I keep doing that and stop buying more books for a while, I could read everything by, erm, around 2025?
2. Not worry about “eminent works” I’ve never heard of
At one point in my life it really seemed as if reading all the classics was just not possible. But now, when I think about it, there really aren’t that many. Not many books were written/have survived up to the start of the 16th century, and I’d say I could live without reading quite a few of those – especially the ones that are completely unfamiliar to me. And for the subsequent three hundred years (ie, before the 1800s) we are still only looking at a relatively small number of big names. It’s definitely possible to read everything of major interest up to that point. Admittedly from the 19th century onwards it goes a bit crazy, but we are still only looking at just over 200 years’ worth and you can narrow that down pretty quickly if you discount all the stuff you’ve not heard of plus anything that leaves you cold. I’m not saying you should never read a book you’ve never heard of – just that, in the interest of keeping your list manageable, something that’s been out of your orbit thus far can wait for now.
3. Stick to a writer’s “greatest hits”
It’s like when David Bowie died, and everyone was discussing his oeuvre, and you kept very quiet because you only owned “Hunky Dory” and “Aladdin Sane” and didn’t even realise he was still releasing albums. Does that mean you can’t love your two CDs and appreciate their contribution to the musical landscape? No it does not, and likewise you don’t have to read every minor book a great writer has written to feel like you’ve got a handle on their work. Top three I reckon.
4. Pick a handful of choices to add to my list annually – but otherwise wait a few years (maybe 10) and see what’s still worth reading
Google, say, “most popular books of 1978” and chances are there will only be a few titles that even vaguely tempt you (for the record, I’d consider “The World According to Garp” by John Irving, “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting” by Milan Kundera, “Tales of the City” by Armistead Maupin and “The Sea, The Sea” by Iris Murdoch. (I’ve already read Ian McEwan’s “The Cement Garden”, yay.) So rather than write down everything new that sounds like a good read, I wait until a book kind of bubbles to the surface and is consistently discussed as one of the best books of the year before it goes on the list. After that, it’s a waiting game. If a book is still making waves years after being published then I’ll want to read it. A case in point is David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest”: it actually passed me by first time around (I was young!), but has since become a cult classic and is now spoken of in such revered tones that I’m desperate to read it (despite its, erm, challenging nature).
5. Only choose books that I’m genuinely drawn to or intrigued by
That could be a book that sounds kind of dull but is considered seminal and important and I want to find out why (one day, “Pilgrim’s Progress”, one day…), or it could be something that came and went but always sounded interesting to me – plus all the stuff that is both celebrated and sounds awesome, too. There are loads of 19th-century classics I’ve never read and I’m itching to get into more Dickens, Trollope and Austen. There’s a reason these books are made into Sunday night period dramas – they are fun to read. Meanwhile, there are plenty of illustrious titles that don’t really appeal and I’m not going to feel guilty about letting them go. Much.
Yeh, so it’s a long game, this reading business. But I definitely feel I’m at an age when I should have those “important” books under my belt, have learnt what I like and what I don’t, and be free to read whatever takes my fancy. And that is going to be sooo good.
Updated on November 24, 2016
Many writers lend their names to adjectives, but what do they really mean? And are they accurate? Here are six to consider…
Some writers become associated with a certain style or idea to such an extent they get their very own adjective. But what do the most common “eponymous adjectives” really mean and are we using them accurately? Here are words derived from six authors who may or may not be turning in their graves right now…
The novels and short stories of Franz Kafka revolve around individuals who are lonely, perplexed, threatened by anonymous forces and trapped within faceless systems (an analogy for human existence, probably). In Kafka’s dark and menacing settings, torture, cruelty, physical suffering and hopelessness abound. His worlds are recognisable but unreal – nightmarish and impossible to navigate, much as his protagonists strive to do so. Nothing feels sure or solid or comforting, and nothing makes sense.
So “Kafkaesque” describes a situation that is deeply unsettling or frightening because it is close to one’s everyday reality, yet feels unfamiliar, illogical and sinister for reasons that cannot be identified. Normal behaviour and patterns of thinking no longer work, and the individual is untethered from everything he thought he knew. This vision is so powerful – and so unnervingly close to aspects of the modern world – that the word is often used to mean, simply, bureaucratic or pointlessly complex. But that interpretation does not do justice to the nightmarish scenario of the individual caught inside a nameless, self-perpetuating system, the very existence of which appears meaningless. Futility, insignificance, impotence and ineffectiveness haunt and frustrate Kafka’s protagonists – ultimately, it is the fear that our lives mean nothing at all that sits at the heart of something truly “Kafkaesque”.
Twentieth-century playwright Harold Pinter presented murky, puzzling situations that appear to hover on the brink of trouble or danger – threat and menace hanging in the air of his one-room settings. His language was spare and precise, and he was renowned for mastering the nuances and layers of meaning in colloquial speech and, ironically, using them to convey a sometimes deliberate lack of communication. He showed that dialogue does not always operate as a channel of understanding – it can act as a barrier, too. In particular he made use of pauses and silence to suggest awkwardness, unease and menace, and the “Pinter pause” has transcended its literary origins to mean a gap in conversation that is laced with tension. “Pinteresque” often refers specifically to such a pause, but it can also mean an uneasy situation in which the full facts have not been disclosed, or an uncomfortable – perhaps threatening – dialogue that carries a greater weight of meaning than has been voiced. Is the term overused? According to Pinter himself: “Those silences have achieved such significance that they have overwhelmed the bloody plays — which I find a bloody pain in the arse.”
If a theme is emerging here, it would be that Kafka and Pinter dealt with unidentified but palpable threat. Perhaps we attach adjectives to their work because they allow us to name the unnameable – our unspoken, suppressed fears. But when George Orwell wrote “Nineteen Eighty-four” (in the late 1940s), his fears did have names: totalitarianism, authoritarianism and oppression. Although Orwell wrote several other highly respected novels, his eponymous adjective derives solely from the dystopian vision of this one book, which describes a world of totalitarian control over every part of one’s life and its most sinister aspects thereof: the outlawing of individuality, freedom of expression and critical thought; constant surveillance; the falsifying of history; the reshaping of language to eradicate independent thought and free expression; the elimination of the concept of a private life or human rights; a ban on contact or communication with others; sentencing without trial; labour camps, torture, death… an absolute horror story in other words.
Orwellian, then, refers to any policy, system or technology that appears, however subtly, to be eroding human liberty by manipulating and controlling our actions and thought processes, or rewriting history to anaesthetise public consciousness and avert criticism or protest. It has become such a common word that this relatively narrow definition has, inevitably, been widened to include all manner of political cover-ups or forms of surveillance. But presenting NHS finances in a misleading way, or filling a town centre with CCTV cameras, are not really Orwellian acts – there is no attempt at total control over you or your mind (which is not to say we shouldn’t worry about those things, but that’s another story). “Orwellian” is also sometimes used as a synonym for “authoritarian” or “oppressive”, but this is not accurate, either, because freedoms can be removed and ideas can be manipulated in democratic societies, too. Does it matter? Well, ironically, one of Orwell’s greatest insights was his recognition of the power of language – soundbites, slogans, euphemisms, constantly repeated phrases – to corrupt meaning, manipulate thought and proliferate ideas. So Orwell would probably argue that linguistic precision is crucial to independent thought, free speech and, by extension, personal liberty. When words become detached from their true meanings, nuance, clarity and insight are lost – along with clear judgement and critical thinking.
Not only that, but events of the past few years should prompt us to think deeply about whether or not we are sleepwalking into a genuine Orwellian nightmare. When 1984 actually arrived, we smugly noted that democracy and its attendant rights and freedoms had emerged victorious from the Cold War and were, we believed, fully entrenched. The book, brilliant though it was, was a reminder that we had dodged a bullet and that that bullet was well and truly spent. And yet, lately, the word “Orwellian” has been cropping up all over the place. From our blind enslavement to technology to the rise of fascism across the West, it is starting to feel as if Orwell’s vision of the future was far more accurate than we realised. What if the only thing he got wrong was the date?
Poor Charles Dickens. A titan of British literature, one of our best known and best loved writers and yet… the word “Dickensian” conjures up a somewhat twee vision of Victorian London – all snowy cobbles, bonnets, street urchins and shoppes of one kind and another. What’s more, “Dickensian” generally suggests his novels’ least appealing aspects – the grotesque, evocatively named characters and the squalid living conditions and desperate plight of the poor. In fairness, “Dickensian” does have literary connotations, too – a long novel that features multiple characters, plot strands and settings is often described as such, as are vivid caricature and detailed description. But I can’t help thinking that it’s all a little unfair – Dickens gave us far more than rich source material for the BBC drama department. His use of comedy, his dry, sarcastic asides and quick wit, and the apparent effortlessness of his prose turned serious literature into popular pleasure, and showed that the two are not mutually exclusive. In his hands, caricatures still had depth, galloping plots still had social and political resonance, and fleeting moments were still memorable. He was, in many ways, a literary magician – not merely a sentimentalist with a good line in puns.
George Gordon Byron (1788-1824) was a baron from the age of 10, a prolific author of poetry and drama, a member of the House of Lords, and a traveller, adventurer and bon viveur. His works were hugely popular and he was infamous for his scandalous affairs (including one with half-sister), his dedication to freedom of thought and independent action, his anarchic political views, and his shocking codes of morality. Occasionally, the word “Byronic” refers to Byron’s poetry, and means contemptuous of conventional morality or rebelling against fate. It can also refer to the characteristics of his romantic heroes – melancholy, plagued with guilt, yet dynamic and defiant, much like Byron himself. But – oh the indignity! – it more often than not refers to Byron’s supposedly handsome looks: pretty yet brooding with dark eyes and dark curly hair… Aidan Turner as Poldark, essentially. Byron was very vain and did much to manipulate his own public image – so perhaps he wouldn’t mind this somewhat shallow interpretation of his name as much as we might think.
If you think Dickens has it bad, pity poor Proust. The French novelist spent the latter part of his life as a near recluse, utterly dedicated to the completion of his masterpiece “A la Recherche du Temps Perdu” (“Remembrance of Things Past”), a loooong seven-part novel concerned with despair at the loss of past experience and the futility of human endeavour in the face of the passing of time. But – yay! – the narrator discovers that the past is eternally alive in the unconscious and may be rescued from oblivion by art, or by chance moments of sensory perception, most famously described in a passage where he tastes a madeleine sponge dipped in tea. He experiences an exquisite pleasure, the surfacing of a long-forgotten memory of his childhood which, after much concentration, he identifies as Sunday mornings with his aunt in the pretty village in which he spent his early years. So a moment in which a taste or smell suddenly conjures an involuntary distant memory is known as “Proustian” – in other words, an entire oeuvre reduced to a cup of tea and a piece of cake.
Updated on November 18, 2016
Capital letters seem simple enough to understand, yet they’re misused all the time. Get on the case with this guide to the dos and don’ts of capping up
Photograph by Tom Eversley
Rogue capital letters are almost as distressing as rogue apostrophes, and both have me reaching for the smelling salts whenever I see them, which is a lot.
And yet it all seems simple enough – capital letters are used at the start of sentences, and for the first letter of proper nouns and titles, right? And yet… what exactly do we mean by a proper noun? Is a title the same as a headline? What about job titles, then? And where do the BBC, Unesco, and easyJet (sic and urrrgghhh) fit into all this? Capital letters are, in fact, a punctuation minefield but it’s one I’m willing to traverse in the name of written elegance. To which I aspire. So here are the instances in which a capital letter is required…
At the start of sentences, direct quotations and direct questions
As in: You know this already, obviously. But occasionally the question, “Do direct questions require a capital letter at the start?” comes up. To which I reply, “Why yes, yes they do.”
For the initial letters of proper nouns…
Now this is a murky business, so bear with me. These words definitely need capitals: people’s names; the names of organisations; days of the week and months of the year; feast days; places and street names; well known landmarks; specific ranks (ie, Captain Mainwaring), races (Aztecs, Aboriginals); historical periods, wars, ministries and treaties.
So far so good. But some proper nouns require a bit of context before we know whether or not they need a capital. For instance, are we talking about a prime minister, or the Prime Minister? The British Army or an army of men? Somerset County Council or the local council? In other words, are we referring to a specific person or institution – in which case we do them the courtesy of capitalising them – or to a person or group in general (in which case they must languish in their lower case shame)?
Furthermore! We would write about the land to the west of the mountains, but life in the West; to April and May but spring and summer; and to New Year’s Day but a happy new year.
Most lists of proper nouns would also include trade names. However, things have become complicated in recent times as companies have started to ride roughshod, frankly, over common convention. For instance: BeneFit, Bumble and bumble, BlackBerry, QinetiQ (whaaat???). It’s utterly reckless – where will it end? Will people start christening their children jOhN or maRY? And it’s all very well on a logo, but how should you go about writing those words in normal text? Sometimes even the brands themselves aren’t sure – despite its lowercase logo (ebay), Ebay has variously referred to itself as Ebay or eBay over the years (although it now seems to have settled on the latter). One well known magazine refuses to indulge such typographical wantonness and merely writes everything with a capital letter at the start (so Youtube, CK One). But even they have given in to iPhone and iPad (because Iphone? Ipad?), effectively following The Economist Style Guide’s suggestion: “If in doubt use lower case unless it looks absurd.” So I guess we will just have to get used to it, sigh.
Here’s another dilemma: what do you do about brand names that have become so well known as to be considered generic? Hoover, Biro, Jacuzzi, Post-it and Jet Ski should all take a capital, strictly speaking, but it does look weird. Unfortunately the companies that own them – protected trademarks as they are – do sometimes get rather cross about it, so the safe thing to do is use the actual generic term instead: vacuum cleaner, ballpoint pen, hot tub, sticky note and, erm, stand-up personal watercraft…
…and the adjectives derived from them… sometimes
It follows that sweets from Turkey would be Turkish delight, and ham from Parma would be Parma ham. We also have Victorian Britain, Afghan hounds, Shetland ponies, Chesire cheese, Caesarean sections and Gothic architecture. But, over time, even these get eroded – so we also have french windows, roman numerals, spaghetti bolognese and indian summers. But these are not all hard and fast rules – again, it goes back to what looks right.
When we refer to a specific person by their title, the initial letter should be capitalised: Mr, Mrs, Dr, Lord, Lady, etc, as well as President Obama, Lord Chief Justice Thomas, and Chancellor Merkel. But job titles in general do not take capitals. You wouldn’t write, “Mr Jones is a Teacher at the local school,” so neither would you write that, “Susie Bond is the Managing Director of a local company,” even if it sounds like an important job and there is only one person in that position. (Talking of teachers, school subjects are not capped up, either, apart from English, French, etc.)
For the titles of books, plays, films, albums, etc
The convention is that the “little” words remain lower case: “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall”; “The Old Man and the Sea”; “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn”; “Raiders of the Lost Ark”.
Headlines are not the same thing as titles. Headlines in newspapers, magazines and other publications (or their digital equivalents) do not need initial capitals – unless they are tabloids, in which case EVERYTHING IS CAPPED UP BECAUSE THEY ARE SHOUTING AT YOU.
Abbreviations and acronyms… sometimes
This is another pit of punctuation contention – who knew that capital letters could be so darned controversial? Here’s the problem… while the BBC obviously needs to be all caps (no dots necessary between letters, by the way), there is less agreement about, say, Nasa, Unesco and Bafta. While those names are certainly acronyms, a lot of publications suggest that, if an acronym is pronounced as a word (the strict definition of an acronym) rather than a string of letters, it makes sense to write it with an initial cap and the rest lower case. (Many words, such as laser and radar*, were originally acronyms but have now become accepted as words in themselves.) And I would agree, because capital letters do look somewhat shouty – except that this usually goes against what the organisations themselves prefer, and also leads to problems with names such as NICE (the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence), which really would be confusing written as Nice. So going for caps is perhaps the safest bet – but neither is wrong, as long as you are consistent.
There is a growing tendency to give all nouns initial capitals, especially in advertisements (“We will clean your Windows, Gutters, Driveways, Paths, Railings and Doors”), and this is a horrible thing that must be resisted at all costs. The internet is not helping, with its endless headings, sub heads, cross heads and captions – all of which are fighting to be seen and read, and which are often given capitals to – I guess – make them stand out. But capital letters are not pretty to look at, and a page that’s littered with them is jarring rather than inviting. So, despite my tendency to use them for emphasis, like THIS, I’m fighting back. Please join me!
*”light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation” and “radio detection and ranging”, fact fans