Taking the Rap.

It must have been about fifteen or so years ago that I was listening to a portable radio – perhaps tuned to Radio 2 – and the DJ played an incredible track. It was simply a wall of words shouted by an incredulous, angry voice. I caught the name of the artist: one Gil Scott-Heron with his poem The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.

I use the word poem very deliberately, as that’s how he wrote it. It contains many of the elements of performance poetry, being light on metaphor but heavy on wordplay. Today, it would probably be classed as rap because it also embodies many of the hallmarks of a modern rap track, with repetitive backing music and rapid spoken words.

Even if you don’t remember the racial tensions of the 1970s, he conveys the spirit of the time in just over three minutes. I also have the rest of the eponymous album on vinyl. If you seek it out, do listen for Whitey On The Moon as well.

I was just as surprised listening to Radio 1 in 2002 as some ska-like sounds started to play. The trumpets of Let’s Push Things Forward made me a fan of The Streets for their first two albums.  I recommend avoiding the last two, as Mike Skinner appeared to have run out of ideas by then.

His first CD Original Pirate Material (OPM) was hailed as ‘Shakespeare for clubbers’ as he spoke about urban life in the UK, painting an uneasy sense of civil unrest bubbling under the surface. For this, the BBC also made the comparison to Never Mind the Bollocks, an unfair comparison because Skinner is far more intelligent than that.

For a start, each track on OPM quotes a lyric from another track, while his second album A Grand Don’t Come For Free is a proper concept album, each track adding a little more to the story arc. Between the machine-gunning internal rhymes, Skinner also surprises with the beautiful ballads It’s Too Late and Dry Your Eyes.

More recently, Rizzle Kicks burst onto the scene with Stereo Typical. I can’t get enough of their second album Roaring 20s. It’s the hooks that draw you in, but the lyrics keep you there.

Even when you move past the radio-friendly Skip to The Good Bit and Put Your Two’s Up there isn’t a duff track among them. I Love You More Than You Think is about unrequited love, while Me Around You explores the awkwardness of acting normally around an ex-girlfriend. It’s hard for lads to talk about things like that, yet they acknowledge this difficulty while expressing themselves in such a fluent way.

The point I’m trying to make is that not all rap should be dismissed as rubbish spouted by overpaid bigheads. If you know where to look, there is some good quality writing out there that we can all learn from. At the very least, it can help bring on the right mood or give just a small suggestion to expand upon. I openly admit that poetry is my weak point, so I mainly listen in awe of how these artists construct their words and phrasing.

Of course, inspiration can come from the strangest of sources. I have a short story that came from watching an RSPB advert, and a poem that was helped along by Corona’s dance track Try Me Out.

And that’s a wrap.

The C-Word.

I’ve seen Chris Brookmyre twice already, and tonight was my third time. I’m a big fan of his work after All Fun and Games Until Somebody Loses an Eye, and most recently, a signed copy of Flesh Wounds. Tonight, he was promoting Bedlam, which also has his autograph.

Brookmyre does not fit the stereotype of the introverted author, much like the late Iain Banks, whom I had the privilege of seeing twice. Rather, Brookmyre takes centre stage and spills out anecdotes full of swearing. He’s so well known for it that he’s now been forced to apologise in advance. Indeed, the first time I saw the guy, he read out an e-mail he’d received by a previous organiser, effectively banning him from appearing several years ago.

Tonight, he brought along a guest. Barry Phillips started a parody blog of a local footballer and found it attracted the attention of readers around the world. Now he’s written a book called The Tartan Special One about a 17-year-old who is snapped up by Dundee FC. I don’t follow the game, and I didn’t buy a copy tonight, but it still appeals to me so I might so do in the future.

I’ve started back at two writing classes: a short course in fiction run by published author Zöe Venditozzi, and Level 2 of the Life Writing course at the University of Dundee. A couple of new people have joined us, one of them from Life Writing, and she says she’s having trouble thinking of ideas for passages in the five- to ten-minute exercises we’re given in class.

By coincidence, I was discussing this issue with one of the other short course stalwarts earlier the same evening. We realised we’re so used to thinking on our feet that we don’t even hesitate over it any more. But when we began in 2011, it would be tiring trying to think of stories.

Most of our Life Writing class knew each other from Level 1, and we really bonded over this week’s homework, which was to write a summary of our life, then pick one part and make it into a vignette. The ideas for this class also come to me rather quickly, and I can sometimes think of one before I’m on the bus home.


Finally, I didn’t realise until tonight that there’s a reminder feature on WordPress. If you want to post at least once a week, or once a month, it’ll send you an e-mail.

Frm Tlgrph to Txt.

Every so often, some newspaper or another carries a report on the declining literacy standards of young people, usually focussing the blame on text message speak. I’m not worried about this happening. To illustrate my point, let’s have a look at how txt spk originated. The first SMS was sent on 3 December 1992 by Neil Papworth, who used a PC to send the message Merry Christmas to Richard Jarvis from Vodafone. The message didn’t receive a reply because no phone was capable of it.

All right, Nokia fans. Get ready to drool.

But that problem was solved the following year using a method that already existed. Certainly in the UK, phone number pads were already marked with letters as an aide mémoire when calling other towns and cities, and it’s very similar to the layout of a modern mobile. Codes are no longer assigned like this, yet if you remove the 01 from many modern area codes, you can often guess the original mnemonic. Perth is 01738, equating to 01-PET; while Hastings is 01424, probably resolving to 01-HAI. It’s an efficient system when encoding a very short message such as the codename of a city, however it becomes more cumbersome with a more complex message.

A simple question such as Where are you, John? could become a nightmare to tap out, as you would need to press extra buttons to write a capital W and J, while the first two letters of you need three presses each. That’s not even mentioning the comma or question mark, both of which could be buried in a sub-menu. No wonder people would write whr r u john, reducing button pushes to 22, assuming one press of the 0 or 1 key acts as the space-bar. That’s just over the 20 required to spell the full message on a standard keyboard.

The boffins have improved mobile input since then, at first with T9 predictive text, and now with touch-screen QWERTY keyboards. So too with text messages. By habit, people still shorten messages and miss out punctuation for brevity. Sometimes it can be a challenge to read, but the brain is particularly good at filling in blanks. In fact, the creators of Teeline shorthand knew this back in 1968, and their system removes the internal vowels from most words.

It’s worth noting that the QWERTY layout is a historical hangover too: a deliberately inefficient design intended to slow down typists and stop the first typewriters from jamming. Yet it still endures even although jams were eventually almost eliminated, and other layouts made available, such as Dvorak, which I generally use. So if QWERTY is still around, why am I not worried about txt spk being with us for the long term? Because we’ve been here before, and it wasn’t even within living memory.

When the telegraph was introduced in the mid-1850s, its pricing model was pay-per-word, so people naturally wanted to communicate as cheaply as possible. Businesses quickly learnt to abbreviate sentences into single words, and enterprising authors also wrote code books for the general public. Here is a wonderful example of where a sender has encoded the important points of a shipping accident into just five words. I’ll bet that in the latter half of the 19th century, people thought all communication would end up being that way. For instance, there is a novel from 1880 called Wired Love: A Romance of Dots and Dashes [CONTAINS SPOILERS] about a couple who meet via telegraph. And yet, despite the subject matter, the description is rich and colourful, just like the majority of documents from the period.

In short, so to speak, text messages are still brief because of old technology, and telegraph messages were brief for cost reasons. But proper English as a whole was not greatly affected by telegraphy in the late 1800s, despite its popularity, and that’s why I doubt it’ll be killed off by cellular telephony in this era, the early 2000s.