Thursday, 20 October 2011

Tom Hibbert and the nature of writing

The November 2011 edition of The Word Magazine features the obituary of music writer Tom Hibbert by his friend and colleague Mark Ellen. I’d heartily recommend you read it; it’s a warm and funny account of Hibbert’s life, full of genuine fondness and respect. It made me quite emotional to read it, despite the fact I’ve never knowingly read a word of Hibbert’s work.

This admission may seem heresy to those who grew up on his articles, but I’ve only seriously been a fan of music – and by extension, writing on music – for about a decade, meaning the era of Hibbert had already passed when I started to buy inkies (as no-one’s called them for yonks) in earnest.

What I hadn’t realised, however, is how much of an influence Hibbert has had on many of the writers who I love today and also, me. Not even just my writing either, when I’m feeling particularly eloquent (it’s roughly as frequent as an appearance from Halley’s comet), my speech is peppered with over-elaborate references and jovial descriptions. It all tends to follow on from the John Peel maxim of “why use one word when twenty-three would be perfectly adequate?”

Chief exponents of the Hibbert vocabulary are The Word Magazine writers, such as David Hepworth and, in particular, Mark Ellen. This really comes across in the weekly podcasts, where phrases from generation-old Smash Hits articles (“fruity drinks”, anyone?) are liberally used throughout. Even when I used to read Smash Hits, a long time after Hibbert had left, it would appear the love of words and mischievous spirit still remained.

What this all reminded me is how much I love words. There are few better feelings than selecting a seemingly unconnected series of words and joining them together to make a beautiful phrase, one which is a pleasure to read and to say aloud, with just the right cadence and mixture of sounds. Around once a month, I look back at a particular sentence I’ve written and think to myself, “you know what? That couldn’t be improved upon.” Clearly, the trick is to replicate that over an entire article on a regular basis.

I’d imagine the Hibbert habit (there’s a lovely coupling of words right there) for disarming questions and unnecessarily complex nicknames comes from the limits of the music writer’s lexicon. There are only so many words for “album”, only so many times you can say “debut”, or “track”. People complain about music writers using words like “eponymous”, but it’s just to add a bit of spice to an informative sentence you’ve written variants of a hundred times before.

Overall, the article really gave me something to aspire to (I’d love a compendium of Hibbert’s work if anyone can recommend one). I’d adore it if I could come up with something as memorable and evocative as “Wacky-Macca-Thumbs-Aloft” or be able to describe someone as “my caber-tossing chum from chilly Jockland” without coming across as a pretentious fool, but I fear it’s a way off yet. I try to inject humour into my writing but, being unfit to even clean the dust from the keyboards of Hibbert or, say, Charlie Brooker, my barbs are often easy targets, or perhaps more cruel than I intend. I started writing singles reviews for No Ripcord in an attempt to fashion some of that fun, pop spirit into the website, but they too often tailspin into rants that demonstrate little of the love for music that got me into writing in the first place.

The legacy of Tom Hibbert lives on. There are some great writers around who can deploy a cheeky turn of phrase or saucily euphemistic line to great effect while still writing entertaining and informative articles. It seems though, from an outsider’s point of view, that a lot of what’s fun about music writing came from Tom Hibbert and, although I didn’t know it until now, he’s the inspiration for me even bothering in the first place.


Gavin Hogg said...

Sadly, the only compendium of Hibbert's is from his "Who The Hell Do You Think You Are?" series for Q magazine which is long out of print.

Joe Rivers said...

Yes, I saw that when writing this. I'd love a copy, but £146.52 (price at current time) seems a little on the steep side, unfortunately.