Thursday, July 05, 2007

Call Off Cthulhu

The lovely Mr BC has been attempting to draw me into the world of role-playing games by slyly positioning them in terms I can relate to.

While we were strolling along Nairn beach last month, he casually mentioned that it's possible to play the game Call of Cthulhu as any character from the 1920s, before giving me a sideways look and adding 'even Lord Peter Wimsey'.

Sadly this intelligence hasn't* given me a taste for complicated rulebooks and unusually multi-faceted dice so much as for re-reading all of the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries.

I've started with Murder Must Advertise, which is a splendid period novel in which people take the tram down Theobalds Road (where I used to work) and say things like 'it's going to rain like billy-oh in about two ticks'. It's also deeply entertaining for me personally, because in it Lord Peter, the aristocratic detective, goes undercover as a copywriter in a London advertising agency.

And that's my job too!

It was also Dorothy Sayers's job, which is why she was able to describe the daily life of an advertising copywriter in the early 1930s in such great and witty detail. I swear nothing has changed, except we now type into computers instead of passing handwritten bits of copy to typists, and we send text by email instead of by messenger boy.

Otherwise, it's exactly the same. Take a deep breath and read this:

Mr Bredon had been a week with Pym's Publicity, and had learnt a number of things. He learned that the word 'pure' was dangerous, because, if lightly used, it laid the client open to prosecution by the Government inspectors, whereas the words 'highest quality', 'finest ingredients' and 'packed under the best conditions' had no legal meaning, and were therefore safe; that the expression 'giving work to umpteen thousand British employees in our model works at so-and-so' was not by any means the same thing as 'British made throughout'; that the Morning Star would not accept any advertisement containing the word 'cure', though there was no objection to such expressions as 'relieve' or 'ameliorate'; that the most convincing copy was always written with the tongue firmly in the cheek, a genuine conviction of the commodity's worth producing - for some reason - poverty and flatness of style; that if, by the most farfetched stretch of ingenuity, an indecent meaning could be read into a headline, that was the meaning that the Great British Public would infallibly read into it; that the great aim of the studio artist was to crowd the copy out of the advertisement and that, conversely, the copywriter was a designing villain whose ambition was to cram the space with verbiage and leave no room for the sketch; that the layout man, a meek ass between two burdens, spent a miserable life trying to reconcile these two parties, and further, that all departments alike were united in hatred of the client, who persisted in spoiling good layouts by cluttering them up with coupons, free-gift offers, lists of local agents and realistic portraits of hideous and uninteresting cartons, to the detriment of his own interests and the annoyance of everyone concerned.

Having just spent the day writing and re-writing a junk direct mail piece for a Large Software Company, during which time I was told by the 'layout man' (actually a layout woman) that what I'd written was too long, too wordy, too unspecific about the benefits of the product and too difficult to illustrate by the 'studio artist', before being told that the client had decided to scrap the idea altogether and go with something completely different, I find the above passage enormously comforting.

Sayers wasn't long out of her copywriting job when Murder Must Advertise was published. I like to think of her using it to exorcise years of frustration with difficult clients and meaningless marketing drivel. And I can actually feel her glee at writing the massive 275-word sentence above as revenge for all those snappy five-word slogans she had to write in her job.

Aww, Dorothy Sayers was great.


* Yet.

18 comments:

James said...

Crikey, I'm often concerned that my sentences get a little too long but that one was huggggeeeee.

patroclus said...

I actually edited it quite considerably, too - the sentence in the book goes on for two pages.

I use my blog to write long sentences and use obscure words because I can't write long sentences or use obscure words at work. It always feels GREAT.

DavetheF said...

That was such an artful sentence too. They really don't make em like that any more. In fact many writers seem terrified to venture beyond the simple declarative sentence, ideas being nailed on as strings of adjectives knotted by hyphens real or implicit; and among other small tragedies in the decline of the English language, the death of the semicolon is by no means the least, having induced shortness of breath in the unsuspecting reader, who asks nothing more than an interesting, but not displeasing journey, period.

Valerie said...

Really? I didn't know you were an aristocratic detective.. ;-)

I've had a bit of a crush on Lord Peter for years. Dorothy Sayers was grand fun. I hadn't realized that about her employment experience, though. Makes sense.

Does this mean you're going to write detective novels in your later years?

Tim Footman said...

"...a meek ass between two burdens"

That's good.

rivergirlie said...

i suspect i'm going to run into you drinking gin slings somewhere and straightening the seams on your stockings. i'm having a mapp & lucia moment, due to a book of typing exercises.
oh - it's complicated.
do you know how to play bezique?

Pashmina said...

I'm very happy indeed that that sentence is proof positive of the usefulness of a well-positioned semi-colon.

In fact it's high time we had an all-out Dorothy Sayers revival if you ask me. Gaudy Night and Busman's Honeymoon always particular favourites.

QE said...

Play Call of Cthulu. You don't need to know the rules...

Mangonel said...

Trouble is, Sayers is totallly fab, and HP Lovecraft is unbelievably dull. I kept reading him thinking I must have got it wrong, but no. Deadly, deadly, deadly. I'm pretty sure I'd have been a mad keen gamer if only Lovecraft had been a little better.


NOT.

patroclus said...

DaveF: Quite right. Let's start a campaign for more adventurous sentence structure!

Valerie: I too had a massive crush on LPW while at school, and I don't think we're by any means alone. I haven't got the imagination for writing detective stories, but I wouldn't mind having a go at translating the Chanson de Roland. Although given my tendency to confuse olifants with oriflammes, it's probably best that I don't.

Tim: It is.

Rivergirlie: Hmm, gin slings, stockings, bezique...to be honest I'm more peppermint tea, stripy socks and Tomb Raider, but I can give it a go.

Pash: Ooh yes, a revival would be great. I too like Gaudy Night very much, but I think Murder Must Advertise is my favourite.

Qe: I'm pretty sure that I shall, although I'm very weak-minded, and any suggestion that my character might be losing its sanity might have an adverse effect on my actual mental composure. This worries me.

Mangonel: Sayers is indeed fab. I'm ashamed to say I know nothing about HP Lovecraft, but I have a feeling First Nations is going to leap to his defence upon reading your assessment...

extemporanea said...

Count me in on the massive LPW crush. Also, on the Mad British Eccentric front, Albert Campion, possibly because of the irresistible lure of a manservant called Magersfontein Lugg.

I beg to differ, timorously, from mangonel. HP Lovecraft is totally fab in a way entirely different to Dorothy Sayers. I recommend the HPL sort-of-biography by Michel Houllebecq. Short on detail, long on insight.

Sylvia said...

The Roland, P? I think someone's beaten you to it - I've had a translation of the Roland on my shelf for 27 years now....but I'm sure your version will be much better. Why don't you do it? I didn't realise you'd studied Medieval French Poetry!

patroclus said...

Extemporanea: Albert Campion was indeed great too, and I had a crush on him also. Even when he was played on TV by Peter Davison.

Sylvia: Yes, my version would be much better. For which read much worse. I did study medieval French poetry, although not quite as assiduously as I was supposed to, hence the olifant/oriflamme confusion. You too, eh? My English version of the Chanson de Roland remains intact, but my vintage French version suffered somewhat from once being packed next to a cheese grater in my rucksack on the long journey home from Exeter to Inverness.

james henry said...

Having read most of HPL's stuff, and now two sentences of DLS, Dotty already comes out on top. Lovecraft being basically an awful awful writer who nonethless came up with some great monsters, for which he can be forgiven a lot.

Call of Cthulhu is a bloody good game though.

I also tried to get Patch into my currently-in-development homebrew RPG, set in a vast mutated version of the Underground, but with dark elves and that.

Patch's response: 'Can I play Mozart?'.

This whole project may take rather longer than I orginally anticipated.

Mangonel said...

BC - Puh-LEEEZE! 'Some great monsters'???Come on! All they ever did was LURK! In drippy pools, in ruined chapels (where late the sweet birds sang. I know.) or in dank forests. All they ever did was lure unsuspecting travellers to their doom, via Despair and The Collapse of Reason. You never even got to SEE the bastards.

And didn't Neil Gaiman already do a vast mutated underground thing?

entropy said...

I b'lieve Mangonel is referring to "Neverwhere". I'm not sure London Below is really a mutated underground, so much as a parallel world - the fact that place names become people, for one thing. I've thought about this too much, haven't I?

patroclus said...

Mangonel: I quite like the sound of monsters you never see. If you ask me, that's where Doctor Who falls down. Stuff you can't see is much scarier than stuff you can see. But then I haven't read any HP Lovecraft so I don't know about that.

Entropy: Not at all. I am part way through 'Neverwhere' at the moment, and London Below does indeed appear to be a kind of mythical representation of the Underground.

QE said...

Patroclus: Call of Cthulu isn't the best thing to play if your character's mental state may affect your own.

Neverwhere is brilliant, and since we seem to have got that and 'RPGs for beginners' into the same conversation, I absolutely have to recommend Post Mortem's free Neverwhere RPG (the only 'official' one, apparently). I haven't yet played it, but the rules are very light, it's definitely story-oriented, and - as above - the setting is great.

I think it was good that HPL's monsters mainly just lurked. His descriptions of mundane things were such a chore to read I'd rather not be subjected to too much camera time on the indescribable Things from Beyond.