Describe it to me

I was reading an interview recently with the novelist Yann Martel – author of the amazing Life of Pi, which I wholeheartedly recommend to you if you have not yet read it, for it is a luminous, surprising and beautiful piece of work.

Life of Pi has been turned into a movie (it’s had good early notices but I’m already grumpy about it and don’t hold out much hope). And the filming of Mr Martel’s book led to him musing on the relative strengths of pictures and the written word.

Words, he said, are quite bad at describing things – they are much better suited to describing emotions or ideas. He took as an example the section in Life of Pi when a boat goes down mid-ocean with all hands. This event is described in the narrative with just a single line: “The ship sank.” In the movie, one imagines, this piece of action is done rather more elaborately.

And the point he makes is a fair one is it not? The reason a picture is worth a thousand words is that it is much easier for us human beings to grasp how something looks in a single glance than it is to process a written description and make sense of that.

It is a point which used to be made to me regularly as a young newspaper reporter by the photographers who accompanied me on the crime beat. Whatever I wrote people would look first at the pictures.

So what do we writers do? Well, we play to our strengths – we say the ship sank, then talk about how people felt about the sinking.

In Song of the Sea God there is a section deep in the book where the main character – the Sea God of the title, builds a fabulous temple on the foreshore. It is architecturally both fantastic and grotesque. It would be quite a job to describe the whole thing in vivid detail – and I think if I had tried to do so I would have failed. So instead I describe some of it – pick out features and glimpses. I summon the spirit of it and I leave the reader to fill in the blanks. They build their own castle in their mind – at least that is what I hope they do.

While I was thinking through the process of people having visual things described to them and what they make of these descriptions, I came up with a good example. The Gloucester Cathedral elephant.

There are lots of interesting things in Gloucester Cathedral in the UK – the tomb of Edward the Second for example, the king who allegedly came to an unfortunate end at the hands of his queen and her lover when he was impaled unpleasantly on the end of a red-hot poker, or the stained glass window which includes the first recorded picture of a golfer (actually he was probably playing an earlier form of the game known as Bandy Sticks). But this is not a local history blog, so I shall stick to the elephant.

The elephant is carved as part of the decoration on the choir stalls of the cathedral and it is fascinating for the simple reason that it looks almost nothing like an elephant. It looks, for all the world, like the work of someone who’d had an elephant described to them, but had never seen one. Which is not surprising, given that this is exactly what will have happened.

Our craftsman, skilful as he was at carving, had clearly been given only a basic description of what an elephant was all about. They are large, have a huge nose and big ears. But from there he had to use his imagination to complete the picture.

So his elephant has what looks like a bull’s body and tail. It does have a nose stretching to the floor, though one which is rather awkwardly executed, as though he didn’t quite believe such a thing was possible. Finally he had to sort out legs – so he has given the thing cart-horse legs, complete with hooves. ‘There we go,’ he probably thought, ‘an elephant.’

And frankly, given he only had mere words to go on, he did a great job.