Dept of English and Humanities | About us | It don’t mean a thing
Document Actions

It don’t mean a thing

by Ali Smith

It was 1995. It was a Saturday. It was the year I put one pound on a random horse in the Grand National, a bay, 11 years old, trained by Jenny Pitman, it was called Royal Athlete, was running at 40 to 1, and it was my lucky day - it came in first. It was a glorious afternoon, it was early spring, and since it happens to be my personal rule that money won by luck has to be spent immediately and on something celebratory, we went shopping. It was a time when I had hardly any money; it was a lot, £40. My friend Sarah said to me, what is it you’re going to buy? And I said: I’ll know it when I see it. And then: I saw it.

It cost the whole £40. Word-wise it has been one of the most versatile pieces of clothing I’ve ever had.

I tend to have interesting experiences, wearing it. I always forget I’ve got it on, as it were, until I see people look at me quizzically. What does it mean if you wear the word it? Is it something about gender? Is it something about fashion? Is it something about objectification? Is it something about information technology? Is it all of these? Is it none of them? Is its meaning negotiable? Can I choose? Does it only mean what I want it to mean, or what someone else wants it to mean, or imagines it to mean? When I wear this t-shirt my friend Kasia says, very Scottishly, you think you’re it. It would also be quite hard to play Tag with it on - because you’d never not be it. (Actually we didn’t call that game Tag, where I grew up - we called it it.)

I wore it when I went to a writers’ retreat in New York State. We were writers from all over the world, and one night I wore the t-shirt to supper, and several of the writers got very excited. Especially the two German writers, both, as it happened, from Berlin, both women, one from the city’s former west and one from the former east, a writer called Julia Schocht, who got into a veritable spin of excitement about the it. Julia and I talked about all sorts of things, like where the huge East German film industry had gone now that the west had swallowed it up, and what it had been like to go from one life to another life so unlike it so suddenly, but when we talked about writing, we talked about the repercussions it could have. I was lucky, with English, she told me. If you’re German, as she explained to me, you can’t ever be ‘it’. Third person can be neuter, from, for instance, das Madchen (girl), but for first and second person it can’t. It is impossible to have a conversation between an I and a you that isn’t a gendered conversation. She was unbelievably moved that I could write a story and it would be possible not to know or worry about the genders of the yous and Is in the story. It was her ambition to be able to do this.

This talk reminded me of a passage in Imagined Corners, a far-too-little known novel by Willa Muir, the Scottish novelist of the 20s and 30s better known as the wife of the more famous Scottish writer Edwin Muir (together they were also the first, as it happened, to translate Kafka into English). Imagined Corners was first published in 1935, and it’s about how stultifying social code is, for two very intelligent women, one older, and a world traveller, one younger, more conventional, a new wife in a small town on the east coast of Scotland in the 30s. At one point they discuss the use of neuter in German for girl and even for woman, where, as one of the women rather angrily comments, they call a girl ‘it’.

And they don’t call only a girl ‘it’, they call a woman ‘it’. ‘Das Weib’ is a worse offence than ‘das Madchen’ for it hasn’t the excuse of being a diminutive. ‘Das Madchen’ can be passed, for, after all, they say ‘das Bubchen’. But to take ‘Weib’ and subject her to a grammatical gender is purely pedantic. Is there another language in the world which makes a woman neuter?...What an indictment!

Since I started speaking I haven’t, until now, used a sentence without the word it in it, and it has meant countless things. It is liberating. It is maddening. It is about gender. It is general. It is specific. It is everything. It is anything. It is open. It is female. It is neutral. It is neuter. At one point in history, its neuter qualities can be maddeningly debasing (and still are, if you think of a book title like Dave Pelzer’s best-selling A Child Called It). And at another point, it can be the most freeing thing in the world, to be able to be it. As the Canadian poet Dionne Brand puts it, no language is neutral: ‘Each sentence realised or / dreamed jumps like a pulse with history and takes a side.’

It is a far far better thing I do than I have ever done. It is a truth universally acknowledged. It is what the girls in Peter Jackson’s film Heavenly Creatures decide to call the film star, James Mason, because they find him so unspeakably hideous. Doing It is a children’s book by Melvin Burgess that some people find too hideous for the eyes of children.

Martin Amis wrote recently, in an article about Saul Bellow, about how incapable of using the word it Henry James seems:

‘James’s prose suffers from an acute behavioural flaw. Students of usage have identified that habit as “elegant variation”. The phrase is intended ironically, because the elegance aspired to is really pseudo-elegance, anti-elegance. For example, “She proceeded to the left, towards the Ponte Vecchio, and stopped in front of one of the hotels which overlook that delightful structure.” I can think of another variation on the Ponte Vecchio: how about that vulgar little pronoun ‘it’? Similarly, “breakfast”, later in its appointed sentence, becomes “this repast”, and “tea-pot” becomes “this receptacle”; “Lord Warburton” becomes “that nobleman” (or “the master of Lockleigh”); “letters” become “epistles”; “his arms” become “these members” and so on. Apart from causing the reader to groan out loud as often as three times in a single sentence, James’s variations suggest broader deficiencies: gentility, fastidiousness, and a lack of warmth, a lack of candour and engagement.’

Amis goes on to identify in Bellow a warmth, a candour, and an embrace of the reader, in his unpretentious language usage, his willingness to be ordinary and uncircumspect, his directness, what might be called his itness.

It Happened One Night. What did, in the film of this title? Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, love, definitely sex and a great story. It Happened Here. What did? The Nazi invasion in the UK, in Kevin Brownlow’s imagined-scenario film. It stands for the main thing, so huge, so important, and so already known, taken for granted, that it can be replaced with the word it, which means more than it would if you say Sex Happened One Night, or The Nazi Invasion Happened Here. Something much more conceptual happens, with it.

That’s it! i.e. that’s it finished. That’s it! i.e. eureka! It was Miss Scarlett in the dining room with the candlestick. It was a dark and stormy night. There is an annual bad fiction contest based at the University of San Jose, inspired by Edward George Bulwer-Lytton’s opening sentence to his 1830 novel, Paul Clifford. Entrants have to attempt to write the worst opening lines possible for a novel in categories including romantic, sci fi, literary and animal interest. Bulwer-Lytton, apart from owning Knebworth and writing The Last Days of Pompeii, began this novel with the sentence now notorious for being what Snoopy, sitting on top of his kennel, typed up on his typewriter every time he tried, again and again and again, to begin a novel.

Not that many novels dare to begin with the fixedness of it, the detail and the particularness of it, but when they do, such a meld of story and detail and immediacy - and, peculiarly, pledge to truth - happens that it makes the picaresque I was born beginning and the it beginning signal practically a different novel form from each other.

‘It was just noon that Sunday morning when the sheriff reached the jail with Lucas Beauchamp though the whole town (the whole country too for that matter) had known since the night before that Lucas had killed a white man.’

Intruder in the Dust, by William Faulkner (1949). It is an immediate focus. Here it equals the place where legend and local meet, and it’s a kind of proof of local truth. Or :

‘It was about the beginning of September, 1664, that I, among the rest of my neighbours, heard in ordinary discourse that the plague was returned again in Holland; for it had been very violent there, and particularly at Amsterdam and Rotterdam, in the year 1663, whither, they say, it was brought, some said, from Italy, others from the Levant, among some goods which were brought home by their Turkey fleet; others said it was brought from Candia - others from Cyprus.’

A Journal of the Plague Year, by Defoe, 1722. Again, it balances particulars of the true story, a suggestion of a sorting through facts and rumours to fix the truth, both personal and historical truth. Or :

‘It was an early, very warm morning in July, and it had rained during the night.’

This is the beginning of Tove Jansson’s 1972 The Summer Book, deceptively simple, deceptively ordinary, in a book loaded with and revelatory about the full specialness and the close-focus of the ordinary and the small. Or :

‘It was long ago, and long ago it was; and if I’d been there, I wouldn’t be here now; if I were here, and there was now, I’d be an old storyteller, whose story might have been improved by time, could he remember it.’

These are the blithely cheeky opening lines of the Irish writer Ciaran Carson’s sublime take on storytelling in his novel Fishing For Amber. Here, it signals a story. So it can signal, equally, fiction and truth. Carson goes on, a moment later, to tell this glorious it of a storytelling story:

‘...sometimes, plagued by his children for yet another story, my father would appear to yield, and begin, It was a stormy night in the Bay of Biscay, and the Captain and his sailors were seated round the fire. Suddenly, one of the sailors said, Tell us a story, captain. And the Captain began, It was a stormy night in the Bay of Biscay, and the Captain and his sailors were seated around the fire. Suddenly, one of the sailors said, Tell us a story, Captain. And the Captain began, It was a stormy night in the Bay of Biscay, and the Captain and his sailors were seated around the fire. Suddenly, one of the sailors said - until we would plead with him to stop this narrative Chinese-box torture, though at what point we might intervene was difficult to gauge, for he might relent, or, indeed, have meant to do so all along; in which case, the Captain of the seventh or eighth interior would embark on a real story, and we could at last settle down in a warm glow of anticipation.’

It does this story-signalling in poems and songs too: ‘It was an ancient mariner.’ ‘It was a lover and his lass.’ ‘It was upon a lammas night, / When corn rigs are bonie, / Beneath the moon’s unclouded light, / I held awa to Annie’ (Robert Burns) or : ‘It was a Sunday morning / And in the April rain / That Charlotte went from our house / And never came home again.’ (Charles Causley). Love, and death. The best and the worst stories you can tell. It was not death, for I stood up, as Emily Dickinson puts it. Or: It was all very tidy, as Robert Graves noticed in his poem of this title, about the moment of death. ‘He was cancelling out / The last row of figures, / He had his beard tied up in ribbons, / There was no dust on his shoe, / Everyone nodded: / It was all very tidy.’

Distance and closeness both, in the it. It takes you into something outside yourself, beyond the self - and what’s beyond the self? love, death, the other. ‘It is funny, you will be dead someday,’ e e cummings begins a poem. His it here makes death smaller, curious, near impossible, and life and thought innocently bigger. Siegfried Sassoon’s first world war-time it couldn’t be more different.

‘Does it matter? - losing your legs? ...
For people will always be kind,
And you needn’t show that you mind
When others come in after hunting
To gobble their muffins and eggs.

Does it matter? - losing your sight?...
There’s such splendid work for the blind;
And people will always be kind,
As you sit on the terrace remembering
And turning your face to the light.

Do they matter? - those dreams from the pit?...
You can drink and forget and be glad,
And people won’t say that you’re mad;
For they’ll know you’ve fought for your country
And no one will worry a bit.’

This is a sheer brilliance, to know to pair these together, and to point out the heinousness of the pairing, the throwaway lightness of it followed by what it really means, the loss of half your body, so that the way things have become so casually reduced becomes the monstrous thing - even more monstrous than losing your legs. By the end of the poem the it has become the pit, and the pit is absolutely connected to the way it will be possible for no one to worry a bit.

Here’s Robert Creeley on the everyday monster that it is, in his poem-prayer called ‘Saturday Afternoon’:

It is like a monster come to dinner,
and the dinner table is set,
the fire in the fireplace,
good luck to good humor -
The monster you love is home again,
and he tells you the stories of the world,
big cities, small men
and women.

Make room for the furry, wooden-eyed
monster. He is my friend
whom you burn.


It is the monster itself, and it is the monstrous thing that happens to it. It is the rest of the world, out there, and all its stories, and it is the familiar monstrousness right here, in the front room, you, yourself, at home.

For Samuel Beckett, in his 1964 novel How it is, it is the nothing that everything is, and the everything that nothing is, and it makes his protagonist a ‘monster of the solitudes’. E Nesbit, in her turn of the century children’s novel Five Children and It, saddles her children with an it so that they’ll find out that what they wish for might itself be a bit monstrous; their It, a sand-fairy called a Psammead, whose ‘eyes were on long horns like a snail’s had ears like a bat’s ears, and its tubby body was shaped like a spider’s and covered with thick, soft fur...hands and feet like a monkey’s’, grants them something a bit dangerous - the having of exactly what they want. Stephen King’s 1986 novel called It also thrives on a strange monster, definitely evil, that seems to live in the sewers and murders children and all their wishes.

Has King’s monstrous it anything to do with the other slinkier it, Elinor Glyn’s it? Elinor Glyn was a poor girl made good, who wrote books in the first decades of the twentieth century which sold millions in many languages, with their mix of daring, frankness, sex and intimacy. Her 1907 book Three Weeks, with its fireside passionate scenes and its older woman / younger man cocktail of innocence and experience, was a bestseller all over the world. She had flaming red hair, searing green eyes, she taught Rudolph Valentino how to really kiss a woman’s hand - not on the back, but inside - and a little rhyme was made up about her gorgeous notoriety : Would you like to sin / with Elinor Glyn / on a tiger skin / or would you prefer / to err with her / on another fur? Glyn was soon, as the Hollywood producer Samuel Goldwyn said, ‘synonymous with the discovery of sex appeal for the cinema’; because it’s Glyn we have to thank for the notion of the ‘it’ girl and the sprightly raunch of the comic performance Clara Bow gives in Clarence Badger’s 1927 film, It, where she plays a socially aware and sexily rather likeably feisty shopgirl who wins the boss’s heart. Its title came from a story Glyn write for Cosmopolitan, and it began yet another stunning rumour about Glyn, that she was the world’s highest paid writer - 50,000 dollars for the one two-letter word. The film opens on an intertitle - in fact, if you see this film today, one of the astonishing things about it is how much attention is paid to the written definitions and intertitle discussions of what it is - the first thing on the screen after the main title is this quote from Glyn: ‘ “IT” is that quality possessed by one which draws all others with its magnetic force. With “IT” you win all men if you are a woman - and all women if you are a man. “IT” can be a quality of the mind as well as a physical attraction. Signed: Elinor Glyn’

Well, that’s all very clear and also rather pleasingly open. But then the first 10 minutes or so of the film is taken up, again, with even more explanation of what IT might mean, with even more written intertitles, as an actor scratches his head reading Glyn’s original Cosmopolitan story, looks at himself in the mirror to see if he’s got IT, checks out his good friend, the store boss, then goes round the store looking for other people who might have IT.

It’s like a public information film, an advertising campaign to create something unpindownable, something about which we must remain unknowingly, magnetically, self-consciously unselfconscious. Then, 10 minutes into the story, who appears, walking down the stairs of the Ritz into the restaurant scene in the film, but Madame Elinor Glyn, clearly the 1920s version of Beckham selling mobile phones now, here to endorse the concept in person and explain in even more intertitling what it is.

It is like watching Hollywood market itself, plug into its own source of energy. It is like watching a mystery be invented, marketed, watching sex-appeal be named as unnameable. Interestingly, Glyn wasn’t the first coiner of it as sex appeal: this was that other great public operator, Rudyard Kipling, who wrote as early as 1904 that ‘T’isn’t beauty, so to speak, nor good talk necessarily’ that make women memorable. ‘it’s just It. Some women’ll stay in a man’s memory if they once walk down the street’ (Traffics and Discoveries). It is definitely sexy. Here’s Molly Bloom: ‘Gardner said no man could look at my mouth and teeth smiling like that and not think of it.’ It is definitely sex.

And what were you, supposed at least to say, if not to mean, not long after the Hay Commission in Hollywood censored all the sex appeal and innuendo out of film, when it came to it~?


There’s nothing like a good don’t to make you want to do something.

Time for the story of how this lecture came about, and it came about because, in part, of the way things come together communally, the way words always suggest other words, and the way ideas are found and made via discussion and dialogue and the communal, word plus word, voice plus voice, and it really came about out of this one word: don’t.

My friend Kasia (Kasia Boddy, the writer, lecturer and critic) came round after Christmas this year, and we had coffee at my house, and we talked about hundreds of things as usual (which we’ve done now for years, since we met nearly 20 years ago) and about lots of books it would be good to write. She said wouldn’t it be good to write a book which was an anthology of arguments. It could be called The Book of Arguments, and be available for Valentine’s Day. Or, she said, a book that had chapters that just looked at single words, at how they occurred in literature and what it meant where they did, for instance, she said, the word: don’t. It had interested her that don’t turns up at the end of Lawrence’s Women In Love, as the benumbed Ursula and Birkin face each other after the death of Gerald.

‘Why aren’t I enough?’ she said. ‘you are enough for me. I don’t want anybody else but you. Why isn’t it the same with you?’

‘Having you, I can live all my life without anybody else, any other sheer intimacy. But to make it complete, really happy, I wanted eternal union with a man too: another kind of love,’ he said.

‘I don’t believe it,’ she said. ‘It’s an obstinacy, a theory, a perversity.’

‘Well- ’ , he said.

‘You can’t have two kinds of love. Why should you!’

‘It seems as if I can’t,’ he said. ‘Yet I wanted it.’

‘You can’t have it, because it’s false, impossible, ’ she said.

‘I don’t believe that,’ he answered.’

And that’s the end of the book, a he-said she-said stand-off. There was also, Kasia noted, the end of Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom, a book which, very modernistly made up its story from more than one voice, a settling of new story out of more than one perspective - modernism’s whole impetus , a form which is multivocal and discursive . This novel was a book which ended on a passionate avowal of love, but extraordinarily this avowal takes the form of one character saying: I don’t, I don’t, I don’t.

And maybe this argument, this energised, passionate refusal to resolve, Kasia said, was at the centre of the modernist rewrite of the novel form. Where the Victorians were keen at least to show the possible cohesion of form even through social, philosophical and even, later, psychological tumult, the modernists knew shape lay in the communal vision, the passionate engaged argument, the refusal to accept the given shape of things.

Kasia also talked about Pound’s famous manifesto for the Imagists, A Few Don’t’s by an Imagiste, which he printed in Poetry in March 1913, including, for example,

‘Don’t use such an expression as “dim lands of peace”. It dulls the image. It mixes an abstraction with the concrete...

‘Do not retell in mediocre verse what has already been done in good prose. Don’t think any intelligent person is going to be deceived when you try to shirk all the difficulties of the unspeakably difficult art of good prose by chopping your composition into line lengths...

‘Don’t imagine that the art of poetry is any simpler than the art of music...’

She wondered if Pound was picking up on a common voice in magazines, those lists of do’s and don’ts around the house kind of jolly hockey thing - ‘In looking after a snakebite patient - the three most important “don’ts”...’ - the double-edged modernist argument, seriousness plus parody. Later, when Pound’s Don’ts had taken more clearly and less parodically the form of his fascism, he broadcast lots of don’ts from Rome, including many anti-Semitic don’ts and a few don’ts about VD, woodcarving and the cooking of potatoes.

You could do all sorts of words in a book like this, we decided, a chapter on a word like it, a chapter on don’t. I said the book could be called It Don’t Mean A Thing, after the sublime Duke Ellington track you heard at the start of this lecture - and it could be about small words, single-syllable words we use all the time, and how far they go and how much they do, and how we use them, and how things mean, how words mean, how they change meaning, or don’t, depending on place and time.

And then we forgot about it and we talked about the other hundred things that came after talking about it. And then a letter came from Birkbeck asking me to write a lecture, and I was, still am, in the middle of a new novel, and should be concentrating on nothing but it, so I folded the letter from Birkbeck and told myself: don’t.

And then I thought, inevitably: mean a thing.

Of course in the song title the usage of don’t is different - the earliest recorded comment on how don’t took over from the proper grammatical doesn’t in US usage is in Mencken’s 1919 American Language, where he says ‘ “don’t” has completely displaced “doesn’t”, which is very seldom heard. He don’t and They don’t are practically universal.’ But sure enough, it doesn’t mean a thing just doesn’t mean the same as it don’t


Because that’s the thing about words - that they mean. That’s what they’re for. They mean contemporaneously, they mean historically, they mean synchronically, they mean diachronically, they mean in context, they mean emotionally, aesthetically, psychologically, philosophically, they mean every multiple way that it is possible for them to mean. They may not mean what they say, but that still helplessly means.

The four-letter word mean means so many things. It means, as a noun, something in the middle, a medium, something equally removed from two opposite (usually blameable) extremes, moderation, it’s a musical term, it’s the obsolete name for the second or third string of a viol or lute, it’s a term in maths, it means average, it means a mediator. As an adjective it can mean inferior in rank, poor, destitute, if said of a horse it means vicious, of a person stingy, of wine moderate in alcoholic strength. As a transitive verb it means to have in mind, to purpose, to aim at (obsolete), to design, intend, indicate or convey; of things or objects it means to have a certain significance, portend, of a person or thing it means to be of some importance, to matter, to be a source of benefit, even to be a source of love. To be destined. It can mean to complain, to lament a dead person, to moan, to pity. These are only some of the things it can mean. Language is crucial because it is versatile, because it can mean so much, and because meaning is, in itself, very meaningful. Eva Hoffman puts this point in her memoir, Lost In Translation, a book all about how, through words, people and histories and places mean:

‘we want to be at home in our tongue. We want to be able to give voice accurately and fully to ourselves and our sense of the world. John Fowles, in one of his stories in The Ebony Tower, has a young man cruelly violate an elderly writer and his manuscripts because the legacy of language has not been passed on to the youthful vandal properly. This seems to me an entirely credible premise. Linguistic dispossession is a sufficient motive for violence, for it is close to the dispossession of one’s self.’

It’s no surprise that one of the first things the southern forces did to keep the Jacobites down after the last bloody battle between the Scots and the English in 1746 was make the speaking of Gaelic punishable by death. Language is who we are. And, as Eva Hoffman indicates, it is crucial to be able to articulate as well and as widely as possible. True story : a friend of mine was physically attacked on a London bus last year when she and a male friend were sitting quietly discussing Fresian and Faroese language structures - I’m not joking - a man on the bus took exception to their discussion, shouted at them that they were accusing him of being gay (?) , and physically attacked them. Okay. So maybe the man was just a madman, it’s possible. But I sense that they were talking about something that made this man feel physically and emotionally threatened - something he couldn’t translate - or could only translate, himself, into a term which meant the most unacceptable thing he could articulate, because they were talking in a context and about a set of contexts he was unable to - or chose not to - understand.

Before George Bush and the most recent attacks on the Gulf, weapons of mass destruction meant weapons which could do a lot of damage and kill a lot of people at once. In the build-up to the attacks on Iraq, weapons of mass destruction became the vocabulary equivalent of a political trump card, the playing card politicians played in the right place in the right game to win the hand. The words didn’t mean the same thing any more. Their impact had changed. They meant: the reason we have to follow this particular line of policy and the reason we can, morally, with impunity. It didn’t seem to have as much to do, anymore, with blood, or limbs, or the usual things that happen with weapons, as it did with whether or not a political point was self-righteously won. During and after the Iraq war, when, incidentally, some mass destruction happened in Iraq and still is happening, and some weapons were tested to see how much they could, literally, destroy, weapons of mass destruction became, in meaning, even more curious. Now it means either moral high ground or lies. In a way, moral high ground itself has come to mean : lies. Meaning, like identity, like history, is fluid. Now, weapons of mass destruction means the most obvious point at which political rhetoric leaves literal meaning even more clearly gutted than if language were itself a live fish and someone netted it, cut it open, scraped out its insides and threw them away because what use are the guts of a fish when all you want to do is sell the fish?

But words have guts. They have immense power. Even the smallest, slightest grunt of a single vowel is so powerful that a whole alphabet can start itself up with


Six pages in the OED on the single letter ‘A’. An A road. A type of blood. A symphonic key. A range of paper sizes. A word that began as ane, or one, and shortened itself to a, a word, rather like it, that denotes both openness of definition - a tree, any tree, and distinctness of number, a tree, a single tree. A sign pinned on the front of a woman in puritan America to show she is an adulteress, as in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. In the Roman alphabet, a has been formed from the Egyptian hieroglyph representing the eagle or ibis, or the Phoenician or Hebrew symbol representing the head of an ox. In Copenhagen last month I walked into a second-hand bookshop and all round the ceiling, on a built-in ledge, the shop owner had gathered books by writers whose titles are single-letter titles, starting with Andy Warhol’s A, through Eva Figes’ B, all the way through the complete alphabet to a book called Z - I can’t remember who wrote it: next time I go there I’ll take a notebook and write them all down. The writer Toby Litt has embarked on his own alphabetical odyssey. If you look at the names of his books chronologically from publication, you can watch this random order appear. Adventures in Capitalism. Beatniks. Corpsing. Deadkidsongs. Exhibitionism. Finding Myself and his new novel, Ghost Story. I asked Toby why he was doing this, and this is what he said:

‘My answer to this question changes over time. The current answer is this: Writing the novels in alphabetical order gives me a way of structuring my future. It’s an anticipatory mnemonic. I might know nothing else about the next novel I’m going to be writing, but I have a start. It will also, perhaps one day, if I’m lucky, give the 26 books a cohesiveness. The work will be all 26 of them. My girlfriend thinks mild Asperger’s Syndrome might have something to do with it.’

Picture of an alphabet made from twigs.Here’s a photograph of an alphabet made from found twigs, by a gent called Lear Mundy, in New Hampshire. This man searched the woods for twigs in the shape of letters. I found it randomly on the internet, in what we might call the new virtual forest.


The Ciaran Carson novel I quoted from earlier, Fishing for Amber, is constructed alphabetically, each of its 24 chapters, Antipodes, Berenice, Clepsydra, Delphinium, Ergot, Foxglove, and so on to Zoetrope, seemingly random, form a huge and wondrous interconnecting shape out of things, opium, Pegasus, quince, ramification, which seemed unconnected, unconnectable. Roland Barthes made this alphabetical organising of the structure of a book into the act of love itself in Fragments d’un discours amoreux. The act of love is, after all, the connective act. And what’s more random, and more connective, than language itself? Than the letters we put together in our different languages to make things mean? Than the signifier and its signified?

Here’s a great poem about qs and as, by Edwin Morgan.

More Questions than Answers

‘Can acupuncture cure pins and needles?’
can bumbledom regalvanize the beadles?
Can the fed hand bite back what it wheedles?
Improbabilities are de rigeur.
Hearts are primed to heat-seek, alles Natur.
Pass me the ashen light, por favor.
You make the story as you go you make
the story even if you go you take
the story on the go and watch it break.

So far this poem does not have a focus.
The wandering locum cannot keep his locus.
Lit, sweet, hand-rolled, we’re passed to friends to smoke us.
The curtains nearly meet, the iron steams.
Reality, though straining at the seams,
may still press on, hunched there in the moonbeams.

All right that’s it. Make a kirk or a mill o’t.
You are not like to find nothing of note.
Buy a season and don’t miss the boat.

This poem, I think, is a kind of Morgan don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing. It lets us know, in its thrown open way, that life and meaning are what we make of them and what we let them be. It advocates energy, openness of connection. It happily shrugs its shoulders. It promises meaning, if you let it, even when we’ve no idea how and why and what.

The letter A is also, of course, a musical note. Brian Eno suggests that there’s a musical note in everything we hear and that even now, if I were to stop talking, we’d hear a note or a chord in the electric hum in this room. And when I was in Canada last year I saw Douglas Coupland give a reading from his latest novel, Hey Nostradamus, which is about a high-school shooting and its aftermath. He finished the reading by having the theatre technician lower the lights and asking the audience to get their mobile phones out and press the button on them that demonstrates their own ringtone, everyone at once. The theatre filled with an eerie light, the glow of 300 little phone windows, and the electric cacophony of all the different random phone tones, for about two minutes. There, Coupland said. That’s the cellphone symphony. The next time you hear a cellphone go off in a theatre or cinema, he said, don’t be annoyed, because it’s someone alive trying to contact someone alive.

With the pull towards meaning that all sound holds for us, I’ve often wondered what it would be like if we could wire up our keyboards on computers so that each letter and number and punctuation point struck a musical note. We could type up, say, the first page of Ulysses, to see what it sounded like. But would we play letters separately, or hear the noise they made together as a word? And how would rhythm work? How would musical bars work in a sentence? Language itself is never not musical, never not rhythmic. Rhythm is meaning. ‘Now this is very profound, what rhythm is,’ Virginia Woolf wrote, ‘and goes far deeper than words. A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it; and in writing (such is my present belief) one has to recapture this, and set this working (which has nothing apparently to do with words) and then, as it breaks and tumbles in the mind, it makes words to fit it.’

Is that what swing is? Is this sensed, known rhythm the thing without which, according to Duke Ellington, it doesn’t mean a thing?

Swing, in its musical definition, is a kind of give-and-take dialogue between notes. Music played as it is written on the page is played ‘straight’, or ‘unswung’ if what you see on the page in a musical bar is four eighth notes and you play them giving each not the same time duration. If you ‘swing’ it, or if the music is played in swing time, then one of the notes, usually the first of a pair, borrows some of the other note’s time.

Ellington was born into a black middle-class family in 1899; his father was a butler who buttled, some of his time, at the White House, then later became a blueprint maker for the US Navy. Ellington learned piano under a woman of the truly Dickensian name of Miss Clinkscales, wrote his first song at 15 and formed his first orchestra in 1923. He called his band his ‘instrument’, made his original jazz sound by compositional integration, or by taking each of his individual soloists’ sounds and making the song out of the meld. It made a sound like nothing else, a sound that marked him as ‘the first jazz composer of distinction’ who found ‘not just decorations of a familiar shape but a new arrangement of shapes,’ according to a contemporary music critic.

It Don’t Mean A Thing was recorded in February 1932, and was the first song to feature the soloist Ivie Anderson, who would become a fixture in the Ellington orchestra for the next 12 years or so. The song was one of the first - possibly the first, depending on your sources - to use the word swing as a reference to a musical style. The joyful vocal in this song is, of course, only part of the meld, with the gorgeous answering of Anderson by the others, including Johnny Hodges on sax, and the repeatingly open ending, finally lightly closed with a magical little twinkling chord played by Ellington himself.

You can see Ivie Anderson in full voice and body if you watch the Marx Bros 1937 film, A Day At The Races. She’s the black washergirl who sings All God’s Chillun Got Rhythm, after Harpo Marx at one point sparks off a gospel set of songs by blowing his tin whistle through the African-American quarters of the town.

Anderson is beautiful and shining in this performance, and to know what it meant to define swing as a term used to sell black music to white audiences, to know the difference between swing the thing and swing the empty fish of a word, you only have to compare Anderson’s delivery of All God’s Chillun to the one by 15-year-old Judy Garland, released by MGM at the same time as the film. Garland’s is the delivery of a 15-year-old girl being forced to sing something, something that pretends improvisation, the ‘right’ way. Anderson’s is all energy, all alive, all freedom of expression. (Ellington actually used to define jazz as ‘freedom of expression - though he always made it clear that this didn’t mean improvisation, which he abhorred. ‘Anyone who plays anything worth hearing,’ he said, ‘knows what he’s going to play, no matter whether he prepares a day ahead or a beat ahead. It has to be with intent.’) Ivie Anderson was born in 1905 in a Los Angeles suburb, she was orphaned as a small child, and was brought up by nuns. She studied voice, worked her way through the clubs to the chorus of the Cotton Club, and Ellington spotted her soloing for Earl Hines in 1931. She looked like a beautiful goddess in her long white dress, people recall, and was as adept at this elegant soloist girlishness as she was at being one of the boys - an interviewer asking Ellington some questions remembers her bursting into the dressing room with ‘a grievance, which she expressed in remarkably inventive, salty language, until she took note of me, stopped and vanished.’ On stage she developed a style with Ellington’s drummer, Sonny Greer, that took the form of him ‘talking’ to her with his drums and her answering with her voice. She had near perfect pitch, and exquisite diction; even her skat sounds exquisitely formed. She retired from singing in 1942 because of serious asthma, opened a chicken diner, then a hotel, and died aged only 44, in Los Angeles in 1949.

And that’s her voice - still alive with the swing of it, on It Don’t Mean A Thing in 1932, the year there was mass unemployment and a world economic slump, the year Wittgenstein began his Cambridge lectures in Philosophy by saying ‘words and chess pieces are analogous; knowing how to use a word is like knowing how to move a chess piece. Now how do the rules enter into playing the game? What is the difference between playing the game and aimlessly moving the pieces?...we can only ascertain the meaning of the seeing how we use it.’ The year cinema gave us, alongside the post-war pre-war A Farewell to Arms, the multistoried Grand Hotel, the resolutely left-wing Kuhle Wampe, and the utterly other Horse Feathers from the Marx Bros, a raft of dark films like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Freaks, The Mystery of the Wax Museum, The Mummy, Murders in the Rue Morgue. (Once cinema had found sound, one of the things it learned to do was scare people with it.) It was the year a first-timer called Forbra won the National at 50-1, the year of the Hunger Marches in the USA, the year Herr Hitler received 37 per cent of the vote in the German elections. In 1933, the same year as Ellington played the London Palladium and Ivie Anderson sang Stormy Weather so well that she made the Palladium audience go wild, Hitler banned jazz in Germany and instituted the first Don’ts against the Jews, the beginning of a steady, bloody, fascist monologising.

‘All musicians who write reflect their time,’ Ellington said. What made the swing - ? it was the inclusion, the dialogue between instruments, the fusion of melody that let something else be heard in the USA, something there already, long before swing, the word, became a good way to sell black to white because, as Billie Holiday said, ‘they could get away with calling it new because millions of squares hadn’t taken a trip to 131st St. If they had they could have dug swing for twenty years.’

So. The end. The last word. Last


I couldn’t discuss the meaning of the word thing without remembering a Benny Hill sketch I saw when I was about eight, where an actress on a film says to an actor, looking down at him, what is this thing called, love? and then Benny Hill breaks in dressed as a film director yelling no no no, it’s what is this thing called love?

Back to Eva Hoffman and Lost In Translation again.

‘How absurd our childish attachments are, how small and without significance. Why did that one, particular willow tree arouse in me a sense of beauty almost too acute for pleasure, why did I want to throw myself on the grassy hill with an upswelling of joy that seemed overwhelming, oceanic, absolute? Because they were the first things, the incomparable things, the only things.’

The poet William Carlos Williams famously had it that there were no ideas but in things. For Williams, the poetic act was the urgency of a note left on the fridge, our dependence on the red of a wheelbarrow, the glaze of rain, the white of chickens. Not just the thing - but crucially, our relationship to it, our apprehension of it, our dialogue with it. Thom Gunn wrote of Williams’s poetic: ‘it is as if he woos the physical world’.

For Joyce, another wooer of the physical world, Ulysses was written with a purpose: ‘I give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city one day suddenly disappeared from the earth it could be reconstructed out of my book.’ In the Ithaca chapter of Ulysses things are simply listed. There they are, recorded for posterity, the fictional insides of not just Bloom’s head but his kitchen cupboards too. One of the things in one of his cupboards is an empty jar of Plumtree’s Potted Meat, and one of the things in Bloom’s head and Bloom’s world is the advertising jingle for it:

What is home without
Plumtree’s Potted Meat?
With it, an abode of bliss.

Ah - the gutted fish words of advertising, and the thing itself - Joyce was an expert in both. The jar, the thing, becomes a fictional symbol - but not in the way, for instance, Hardy has Alec take a strawberry and make Tess eat it, in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, or the way Alec always has his cigar stuck phallically out of his mouth. Plumtree’s Potted Meat means because it is itself and meaning attaches to it as it does, in our lives, to things. Bloom, who writes adverts, despises the shoddiness of its advertising jingle. Shreds of potted meat from the empty jar are in Molly’s bed where Molly and Blazes Boylan have spent the afternoon. The jar is meaninglessly relevant, symbolic of only itself, a thing, in a human context, which is what makes it meaningful either as a sign of Bloom’s ambition as a copy writer, or as evidence of the adultery, and the perfect pathos is in the empty advertising the promise of the ideal and paradisal home, the abode of bliss, in an empty jar. The advert suggests that if we buy the thing, our world will change for the better. Joyce knows that it’s the other way round - that it’s what happens to us, and how we live, that invests the empty thing itself with meaning.

The meeting of word and thing is the wellspring of the imagination. As A S Byatt writes about the novel: ‘The power of the novel lies in the need to imagine people and things that don’t exist.’ Yes. But I’d say, the power of all art also lies in our need to imagine people and things that do exist, to invest the real with imagination: the act of imagining the real is the moment, the place, where the mind meets the world. And the impetus of all language lies in the impetus to communicate, to connect, to go beyond the self.

The signifier meets the signified, in every word we use, in a widely understood act of union, an accepted mundane everyday massive leap of faith. Every time we use a word we take something and give something on trust. Every time, we make a kind of music of our times. Every time we say goodbye, I die a little. Goodbye. It’s the end. But one final thing to leave with you: this little eight line poem by e e cummings

thing no is (of
all things which are
who)so alive
quite as one star
kneeling whom to
(which disappear
will in a now)
I say my here

The poem rehearses the urge to make sense, the human urge to make meaning, to put things together, to make and honour the connections, even if they’re not obvious. That’s why things mean. It rehearses how hard it is to do this, how strange meaning is. It bends the knee to the being alive of it, as well as to the star, the world beyond the self, in which we live. It knows how short it all is, how fast it goes.

The word thing, etymologically, began by meaning a literal coming-together - a public assembly for judicial or deliberative purposes, from the Old Norse. It has its roots in assembly, a council, the communal.

The world beyond the self. The discursive force. The multivalence of meaning. The urge to shape and order things. The urge to make contact, make things connect. The communal voice. All language is a proof of life. All language has a heartbeat. All language has a history. All language makes a history. Say your here, while you’re here.