I remember someone once described a mutual acquaintance as being ‘all meat and no gravy’ I didn’t really understand exactly what they meant, but it’s a lovely phrase which I try not to use too often myself. Of course, being me, that’s sometimes difficult.

 . . . and one more thing – Since Jan 2024 I have started putting my essays on Substack and with audio too! Please follow me there and give it likes and shares. Pretty please all that good stuff.


I found a little book entitled Sand and Foam in our house when I was maybe 16 and as I leafed through its pages of verse, one of the lines jumped out at me because I realised immediately that the Beatles had misquoted, or maybe I should say ‘been inspired by’ it in John Lennon’s song addressed to his late mother Julia on the White Album. Khalil Gibran’s 1926 original reads “Half of what I say is meaningless, but I say it so the other half may reach you.” It didn’t make any more sense to me at that time than the slightly different lyric of John Lennon’s dirge. 

I was all about economy of effort back then. I recall we were given a task in school to describe the chairs that we were sitting on in sufficient detail that they could have been re-ordered – an exercise in writing that I later discovered was called specification – and I put my pen down having written Grey plastic shell schoolchair on black tubular steel legs with rubber feet. While everyone else was writing half a page or so. The master picked up my paper and said something like, ‘James’ natural penchant for brevity has surprisingly hit the mark for once.’

So it didn’t make sense to me to imagine that anyone would ever bother wasting words, or that if they did so, then it might actually improve their message. In fact as I look back, I’m surprised I read any of Gibran’s lines in that little book at all. As a child I would always skip any verse I had found in a book (Alice in Wonderland, Winnie the Pooh). And at the age I was when I found that book, I would have run a mile from anything that rhymed unless it was set to rock music.  

A few years on, and when we were taught to draw at my School of Architecture, the tutor explained that anything other than the minimum of black line on white paper to describe what was to be built was ‘noise.’ Yes I could relate to that. Our drawing pens were the weirdest arrangement of precision-engineered plastic and steel with a strange little removable sleeve enclosing a spiral airway that was destined to either flood with indian ink, leaving blots, on the paper or else to clog up and produce no mark at all. Stencilling or hand lettering annotations on those drawings with those temperamental Rotring pens was even worse, so again there was even more incentive to minimise – lines and words both.

Now I look back on those days and my feelings on brevity and about poetry especially are very different.  I now understand the concept of the ‘meaningless half’ very well, but before I go there, I will take time out here to make a very sincere tribute to brevity for arts sake as opposed to brevity for the sake of the lazy schoolboy on his plastic chair.  

I love the economy of line drawings especially. Quentin Blake and Bill Watterson never wasted a single line between them. And I really admire the skill of advertising copywriters who can get so much meaning into so few words – ‘Vorsprung durch Technik’ and ‘Genius’ were two marvellous pieces of minimalist advertising copy from the early 1970s. 

The first one used a non-existent but plausible German phrase to ring more bells than a thousand descriptive words could ever have done in the minds of the potential English car buyer. The phrase reminded us that the Germans could make better cars than us; that there was no point in clinging onto post-war prejudice (very much still a thing in the seventies) and sentimental attachment to our poor old automotive industry (- almost not a thing any more). It was time to face facts and get ourselves an Audi which was technologically superior and actually drove much better too.  

Similarly the single word, ‘Genius’ shone a spotlight on the brilliance of the classic gold harp logo on its perfect black and solid white glassful. It raised the humble pint of Guinness extra stout to the status of all those foreign and Scottish drinks about which books and books of bullshit were written, and bought by the British public at the time. Both of these were beautiful examples of high art in the new commercial age.

Copywriting, Poetry or song lyrics can be so economical because they make use of the culture that the artist and the punter share to communicate much more than what is said. 

And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand, they danced by the light of the moon. With just those few words we know that the owl and pussycat had discovered that perfect ageless love. Why? Because so many other authors had previously pumped those concepts of dance and hand holding and island seashores and moonlight so full of romantic significance, that Edward Lear just had to mention them in verse to pull the heartstrings of the reader over the horizon and into the sunset. Yes, there is something brilliant that pops out of inspired artistic brevity. 

Haha  – and of course I could prick that bubble by talking about mathematical or physical formulas here too – just a short string of letters and numbers to represent pages of discussion on planetary orbits, curved space and rolling tides. But I’ll spare you the detail. I think you get the idea.

Instead I’ll jump back to the Owl and The Pussycat and Khalil Gibran

They danced by the light of the moon, the moon, the moon. They danced by the light of the moon.  Hmm more than 50% meaningless padding there.

Songs not only pad out the lyrics with repetition and dooby dooby doos, they also demand that the voice, much more often than not, is singing concurrently with other noises. My drawing tutor had described anything but black on white as noise, and of course he was referring to the static noise with which any kind of broadcast or recorded sound was accompanied in the pre-digital era.

But although the band or orchestra’s accompaniment may be beautiful, it is still going on in parallel. It is still competing against the singer’s voice for the same pressure waves rattling around through the ossicles in our ears. Not only can we untangle all those multiple simultaneous notes and chords and voices, but they actually intensify the experience, and the message of the song.

Or look at the poem,  Jabberwocky. Hardly half of the words in that one are even real words – how is that for distractive noise? And yet from it we can still understand the epic tale of heroism, the weapon’s fine craftsmanship, and the hero’s strength of both body and mind in conflict – set against fearsome monsters in an environment of dark warnings, joyous homecomings and the warmth of a father’s embrace.

But these are all examples of creative culture, and what is missing or obscured in them is left out or hidden deliberately because the gaps in the words make space in the mind of the receiving party for imagination to create a richer experience than would have been filled with more description. As Alistair Cooke allegedly once said, “I prefer radio to TV because the pictures are better.” 

Gaps in descriptive flow, artfully used, allow our imaginations to fill space with something richer than could be filled by the artist. “In radio, you have two tools. Sound and silence.” so said Ira Glass. So silence on radio is like the white space in the graphic design of a website, a glossy magazine or a coffee table book. These media all use other ways of deliberately adding noise or reducing the contrast of black and white. There was a fashion a decade or so ago for putting a copy of a logo on a letterhead or the side of a lorry so big that it overlapped the edges and half its area was lost. These oversized extra logos were always of a very low contrast. Again the design deliberately added inessential repetition and noise, and part of the thing was missing beyond the edges. But again this gave a touch of class by cultural reference, in this case the suggestion is of watermarks and quality. A quality that is at once both ephemeral and also even larger than the page (or the vehicle) which is carrying it.

But what about that simple transmission of information rather than art or design, and the meaningless ‘half’ referred to by Gibran’s verse? That doesn’t really fit into any of those types of artful use of noise, white space or low contrast.

To maintain one’s licence to practise in many professions, there is a requirement for CPD – continuing professional development. I used to go to a lot of these events and I thought if I came away from the hour with one solid takeaway of learning, then it was a good one. I remember that one of those nuggets – formed of a couple of bullet points which actually came from a seminar whose title was Assertiveness Training for Women – formed the backbone of every professional report I wrote for the next two decades, and I still preach it today to anyone who will listen. Now the question is, if I had just read that soundbite of wisdom in isolation, would it have stuck? Or did I need to waste any number of hours both driving to and from those events and sitting in them for it to sink in?

Here is an extract from a typical blog post of a couple of years ago, highly rated by Google. I don’t care much for understanding SEO or search engine optimisation, but I know people who do.

‘Whether you’re a first-time camper or an experienced outdoorsman, choosing the right tent is important to have a comfortable camping trip. When choosing a tent, there are many factors to consider. First, you must decide what type of tent best suits your needs. For example, if you’re planning on backpacking, an ultralightweight tent that’s easy to carry would be a perfect choice. Alternatively, weight and size may not be as big of an issue if you’re car camping. Depending on the type of camping, you will choose a different type of tent.

Frankly I have to say that it hurts me even to copy paste that drivel. Now I happen to know that that text is part of a 3,000 word blog post, written by a professional content writer, having been given a brief to write on a subject which was trending at the time. He was required to produce exactly that volume, which was also run through a grammar checker, and an SEO service to optimise the number and choice of searchable keywords contained within the text. Neither too few nor too many of each key word. 

So by the time it hit your screen it had been optimised for searchability, and therefore for advertising revenue. Now if 16 year old me or even 66 year old me had written that article, I would have condensed it into a table of comparative information that would perhaps have about 10% or 15% of the volume. The result? No one would visit the website and no one would click on my affiliate links and no one would pay me advertising revenue.

Ever wonder why the recipes you look up on the web always have a load of drivel before you get to the list of ingredients? That is both to pad out the volume (check) and to let Google know that you not only visited the page but then bothered to scroll down (check).

Now I’m not bitter about this. No really not. Remember, apart from those SEO tricks of the trade, Google’s highest ratings are awarded to sites that get lots of visitors, so the Google algorithm was learning what people liked, and then encouraging more of the same in a kind of spiral of success breeding success.  What does it matter whether it makes my eyes bleed? It’s what people wanted. Or did they?

Now a few years have passed, and if I need a piece of information, it’s a toss up between looking it up on Google or asking an AI app to write me a short report and give me the links for its sources.  Pretty soon it won’t even be a toss up any more. The LLM already wins hands down. It writes me a nice concise report on what I need to know, and usually in better English than that prolix padded piece on tents. Now sometimes it does give me a piece of worthless fluff, for example when I asked it to compare two engine options in a second hand car I was about to buy, but all that meant was that the information I needed wasn’t really out there, so I’d better talk to a mechanic. So the LLM was still doing its stuff as well if not better than a search engine.

So maybe padding for paddings sake will ebb again from the internet. And we will get  back to the happy medium of just the right amount of noise to allow us to absorb the nuggets. Probably a lower percentage of meat to gravy than Gibran’s half, but still a better ratio than it was a few years ago.

There is a thing called Blinkist. It’s a book-summarising subscription service. I was chatting to Ania the other day as it happens, (Ania is my wife and the SEO expert I mentioned before, but I am glad to say not the authority on Tents) and she mentioned that she has a Blinkist subscription and could share it with me because it gives access for two people. I thought that sounded like a good idea and then she told me that, although she uses it all the time, she finds that not much sticks. Whereas if she listens to a whole audiobook (admittedly probably at double speed) then by the time she has finished it, she is in a position to take more good sense from it.  

I can identify with that and realise I’m the same. Perhaps we need the padding to give us the time to absorb the spice. Perhaps we are so well adapted by ancient evolution to searching for tigers in bushes, that if there aren’t bushes we don’t recognise the tigers. Perhaps half of what I say really is meaningless.

Nick James      Posted in:



February 2024, Brittany, France.

Header Image:

The Slaying of the Jabberwock by Arthur Rackham