D. J. Enright Injury Time: A Memoir (2003)
Injury Time was D. J. Enright's final book, a quite charming collection along the lines of that old-fashioned creature the 'commonplace book'. The title refers to the 'injury time' that is his life after his diagnosis with cancer, but also to the 'injuries' he collects in his daily reading: that is, the injuries done to his great love, the English language.
I have previously read some of Enright's poetry and dipped into his critical works, The Alluring Problem (about irony as a 'style' in literature) and Fields of Vision (in which he gets to grips with television - and language). I also have the wonderful anthology he edited: The Oxford Book of Death. Enright had a very interesting career - a product of Cambridge in the F. R. Leavis era (but not a Leavis disciple), he spent many years in academia outside of the U.K before coming back to edit Encounter (the cultural journal founded by Stephen Spender) and serve as a director of Chatto & Windus. Enright read everything: great literature (in many languages); spam letters from Africa; brochures in the post office; Harry Potter; mail-order catalogues; pill packaging; everything - and Injury Time is his final volume of a trilogy of his thoughts on the bits and pieces that have caught his eye.
Some of the 'injuries' done to English include the dreaded 'dangling participle':
Then there is - surprisingly common - the dangling or unattached participle. Robert Burchfield cites Lord Belstead speaking of Lord Whitelaw on BBC Radio in January 1988: 'Being unique, I am not going in any way to imitate him', and Richard Ingrams in 1987 writing of the house in which he grew up: 'Now demolished, I can call it to mind in almost perfect detail.' (Lord Belstead 'did not intend to imply that he was himself unique', and 'obviously Mr Ingrams had not been demolished'.)
People look baffled should you draw their attention to a dangling participle, and slightly anxious, as though they had omitted to adjust their dress. When, stumblingly, you seek to explain matters, they grow ratty: the intention is plain enough, no one would ever suppose it meant what (or so you say, and who are you to say?) it may signify grammatically, what does grammar count for anyway?
Have just come across a splendid specimen in Barbara Skelton's Weep No More: 'Dining alone in Ajaccio, a cockroach actually ran across the plate.' That should cure us of dangling participles - if anything could.
There we can just about make out what is going on, even though, from what we know of her, Miss Skelton was less likely than a cockroach to be dining alone.
Enright also collects small witticisms that turn on language; he ranges from high to low culture without missing a beat. Goethe in one paragraph; Hollywood in the next:
It appears that Cubby Broccoli, producer of James Bond films, when asked why he continued working into his eighties, replied: 'If I didn't, I would turn into a vegetable.'
No pun is too low for Enright and this book has many very funny offerings (his passages on misplaced hyphens are wonderful). In places Enright also passes a certain stern eye over popular morality:
There used to be an expression, 'conspicuous consumption'. This has disappeared, what it represents having become normal and therefore no longer conspicuous.
He acknowledges these signs that he has become,
'Difficilis, querulus, laudator temporis acti...' It is amply attested to that old people are convinced things are getting worse all the time. On top of this predisposition, it is perfectly possible that some things are getting worse all the time. [The quotatation from Horace brilliantly encapsulates the 'grumpy old man' who praises the past]
Injury Time is also coloured, for this reader, by the knowledge that Enright was struggling to the conclusion of both this book and his life. Tucked in amidst Enright's witty didacticisms (did I invent that word?) are passages that reveal fragments of his day to day struggle with cancer - his thoughts on the NHS, on endoscopies, on young doctors (and elderly patients) and - inevitably for a man who edited The Oxford Book of Death - on The End. What is left for the man who lives to read when the terrible disease (or, ironically, its treatment) puts an end to his greatest pleasure?
Used to read the newspaper . . . Used to read the headlines in the newspaper . . . Used to read the first two or three words of the headlines . . . Have given up reading.
If you liked this: everyone should keep a commonplace book. Go on...