“The writer has something to say – the academic is an apologist”
I identified closely with many of the sentiments and observations in Chris Walsh’s recent article in the Times Higher Education (THE) promoting his work on cowardice. Academic work is constantly scrutinised for relevance, rigour, quality and contribution to knowledge. There are conventions in publishing that encourage particular writing styles and of course all previous relevant knowledge must be cited. The publish or perish culture also forces us down a route of safe and sure publication, and the prevailing emphasis on objectivity renders the academic voice near silent. This week, for the first time in a long time, I dug out and re-read some of my earliest papers. Two things struck me. The first was how rough they seemed in writing style, and how much they would benefit from further editing, even although the editors at the time thought them good enough to publish. The second was the confidence with which I expressed myself in those early papers, which puts my more recent (yet more skilfully written) work to shame. In those early papers I had a voice, I was a writer with something to say and it came over strong and clear despite other shortcomings. My most recent academic work is more refined, more accurate in its positioning in the body of literature, and follows the publishing conventions in our field, but it has no voice, or at least not one that I recognise as my own. Has the academic world gone too far in silencing the subjective, sometimes quirky, but well-informed voices of the academic community? Have we, as Walsh suggests, become apologists for our own craft? Or is it just me?
A version of this story is published as “The Bag” in Oor Ain Voice, by Write Enuff, 2016. A slightly different version of this flash fiction is published as “The Bag” in Oor Ain Voice, by Write Enuff, 2016. (out of print).
This sculpture chilled me. The man or boy seems to have emerged from the ocean. He is pale and holds something in a bag at arm’s length. The sculptor must have had a particular story in mind. Here is mine.
The man ascends the steep bank rising from the shoreline. His head appears first over the grassy embankment. His hair is short and pressed damply to his skull, so his ears seem unusually large and stand out from his head. You note that although his nose is not quite straight, no features are striking. Nor is his body distinctive. He is slim but not muscular and you can see that his upper torso is smooth and hairless, because he wears no shirt. You are not alarmed by his partially dressed state, for although it is late, at this time of year it could be tempting to take a plunge in the river after a day in a hot office. So his smart shoes and city trousers, while at odds with the pale nakedness of his chest and arms, are easily explained.
A sudden shiver runs down your spine as you see his expression of intense concentration. His eyes are unblinking and focus on a sack that he grasps by its neck and holds in front and away from his body. His arm stretches forward, its muscles sharply defined in the moonlight. His other hand hangs loosely at his side and is connected to the sack with rope, the yellow kind used by boatmen, to see easily below water. At its end is a metal clip. The middle of the rope coils tightly several times around his hand to ensure his grip and its length shows that the bag was submerged at six or seven feet. You see the sack is heavy and that something coils inside. Its weight is dispersed in each corner for balance, although he holds it steady. You see his lips curve in a slight smile and realise this is his precious. What does he have in the bag?
You can’t get it out of your head. You follow him through the grass to an old wooden boathouse. The water laps under the rotted boards. You shudder at the sucking sound of the tide pulling back, for it has now turned. You follow him inside keeping to the shadows. He sets the bag down gently in the boat moored there, and you see he is careful to distribute its weight evenly. As he lets go of the bag it settles down wetly onto the thing inside. You think you see movement, but it might just be the bag pulled down by the weight of water and slipping around the smooth surface of something lurking there; for you feel a presence. The man takes a lantern from a hook and steps into the boat. It rocks gently for a moment, the water lap-lapping as he sits carefully on the bench, an oar at either side of him, the bag in front between his feet. He adjusts it carefully, tenderly. You hear him speak to it softly.
You think he is going to take the oars and pull the boat out of the boathouse, into the current, but first he lights the lantern. The light is dim and soft and casts fleeting shadows. He loosens the top of the bag, and in the shifting reflections of the ripples shimmering across his face you see what it has done to him. This is mine you think. You have to have it. You move forward slowly, stealthily. One oar does it. One quick smack. One single splash.
You sit on the bench, the bag between your feet. You adjust it carefully, tenderly. It’s alright you say as you extinguish the lantern. You take the bag and hold it in front of you and away from your body. You step out of the boat and walk along the bank to the place from which he came. You lower it into the water taking care that it is fully submerged, letting it sink until the yellow rope is all played out. You coil it around the post, once, twice, and a half hitch.
I stand in the shadows. I watch you climb up the embankment in front of me. Your shirt is clinging wetly to your skin. You raise your arm and wipe your sleeve across your face. In the moonlight I see you look around. You pull a fallen branch from the side of the path and sweep it behind, covering your tracks. I watch as you reach the road, your head rising first above the embankment and caught in the glow of the street lamps. As you move away along the road, I look back towards the river.
I follow your path. I reach the post where the yellow rope is coiled, once, twice around, and secured by a half hitch. I remove my shirt and place it on a stone, then I squat down to pull on the rope. I see myself reflected in a sliver of moonlight on the dark water, I see that I am slim but not muscular and as I pull on the rope the muscles of my arms are sharply contoured. On my face is an expression of concentration, a slight smile curves my lips. This is my precious; in the bag is my precious.
I am so fed up with the advertisements that you place at the side of my FB page so I followed the link to find out how you select them. It’s based on what I like and post. If that is true my posts must be too boring to give the search engines any buzz words to guide their algorithms – let me see if I can influence the ads. Listen FB, I love rock music, art, fun places like Copenhagen, places I have not been like St Petersburg, Hong Kong, Colorado. I’d like to visit Greenland and sail round the Antarctic. I love the sounds and smells of markets in Africa, I want to be a writer. Community, creativity, interesting ordinary people interest me, not celebs. I love world music, poetry literature, language and culture. Please post ads for charities, disaster appeals and if it’s about food make it about alleviating hunger and not belly fat (oops – must never mention that again). If it has to be food I like wine and clean fresh food and recipes from around the world. My taste in film is eclectic – please don’t insult me by guessing one narrow genre. OK, that’s it for the day – back to preparing lectures on – guess what – international business ethics – put that in your pipe and smoke it FB, I am waiting to see what you come up with in your sponsored links – selected just for me. 🙂
It was the wrong response. The cab lurched forward. The driver barked something unintelligible at her, his eyes pierced hers in the mirror. His soothing tone was gone and she felt the tension mounting as he slammed the wheel back and forth, navigating the sharp bends on the mountain road. He was shouting and shouting at her, spit spraying her face as he turned to yell.
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It was the pile of banknotes lying unattended on the bar that drew my attention. We were in a café bar in the centre of Copenhagen in deep conversation about the exhibition at Kunsthal Charlottenborg. Leaving the gallery we had taken a brisk detour through the normally quaint and picturesque Nyhavn with its pastel coloured town-houses and pretty boats, on the waterways around which the old town was built. Today though it was miserably wet, and cold for August, so we hurried back to the city centre where we were glad to find a café with an empty table. We sat perched on two high stools, just inside the door with a good vantage point to view the bustling city street outside, as well the goings-on within. I had spotted a number of small galleries that we were enthusiastically planning to visit the next day when I stopped mid-sentence, as the strangeness of the situation dawned on me.
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