Ian McMillan: Manual overload

Ian McMillan

Ian McMillan

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Lots of us will, of course, be getting books or book tokens for Christmas, and that’s a good thing, but on the morning of this December 25, like every other December 25 for decades, I bet you that thousands of people in pyjamas and dressing gowns, their hair sticking up like yard brushes and their eyes distant and rheumy with interrupted sleep, will be trying to read badly written books with hardly any plot or character, and certainly very few laughs.

I’m referring to the Instruction Manual, that impenetrable map of somewhere you never really wanted to go in the first place, down roads that seem impossible to negotiate. So as the yuletide season rushes towards us with the brakes off let me make a case for creative writers and illustrators to be involved in the putting-together of these items of sub-literature. Let’s get the novelists and poets and playwrights to come to the rescue. I’ve even got a name for the project: Weapons of Mass Instruction. Good, eh? Well, not bad.

The Instruction Manual, that impenetrable map of somewhere you never really wanted to go in the first place, down roads that seem impossible to negotiate.

Think about it: we’ve all endured those endless minutes that stretch into endless hours with the crying child and the pieces of the toy laid out on the floor like an explosion in a plastics factory as the hapless parent attempts to make sense of the prose that’s impossible to fathom and the baffling illustrations that seem to be a mixture of cave painting and baby scribble, but with the help of Weapons of Mass Instruction all will become clear.

This idea was partly prompted by the badly-written nature of manuals, but also by the news item I saw the other day about lots of writers having to apply to the Society of Authors for hardship grants because their decently-written, non-blockbuster mainstream novels weren’t selling as well as they used to; as a fan of the aforementioned type of book I was a bit sad but it struck me that by getting these scribes to do a bit of non-creative writing for a change, you could kill two birds with one stone. The novelist would be gainfully employed and would earn royalties and the rest of us would be able to make the flipping wardrobe doors open and shut with ease.

There’d have to be stylistic restrictions, of course; the writing couldn’t be florid and the prose couldn’t be purple. Ernest Hemingway would be a lot better at the job than F Scott Fitzgerald because brevity and clarity, rather than extravagant metaphor, would be the watchwords. Writers of columns for popular regional and national newspapers would be very good at this job, of course, because they’re used to working to deadlines and their writing is always a model of clarity and concision and it’s rarely as flowery as that flowery pinny my Auntie Mabel used to wear.

Weapons of Mass Instruction: you heard it here first.

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