BRYONY QUINN is a writer, editor and lecturer based in the UK. bmbquinn[at] ABOUT BQ.

ALL PROJECTS —— [2015] OBLIQUE/OBLIKE is a collection of essays devoted to obliquity. Texts include: a speculative etymology, O-OB-OBLIKE, which reads into the conceptual, logical, textural and metaphorical potential of the word “oblique”; a contextual history of the forward slash, A TYPOGRAPHIC CHRONICLE OF STOPS AND STARTS; a series of fragment essays with photographs (HOW TO CROSS A SLOPE) that consider definitions of spatial and architectural inclination on the body; AERIAL OBLIQUITY, a text exploring perceptual shifts, impostor landscapes and the military units set-up for photographic interpretation at the start of the 20th century; a critical reading of Richard McGuire’s comic HERE and other narratives in art and literature that open windows (or tunnel out or fold or fling) the past into the future; and an extract from a slideshow of images and ideas — things that prop versus things that lean — designated as OBLIQUE OBJECTS. This project follows a general notion that lines of thought may not be perpendicular but that does not mean that they are random. [2015] ALBERTOPOLIS COMPANION is a book, website and series of podcasts that write around and over the South Kensington complex of Victorian institutes and museums that were built with the proceeds of the Great Exhibition of 1851 (an area colloquially known as Albertopolis). The essay, ALBERT-O-POLIS, draws a critical cross-section of the words facetious coining and usage. [2014] OF AND FOR TURNER CONTEMPORARY is a series of essays, an event and a website generated in collaboration between Margate’s Turner Contemporary museum, David Chipperfield Architects and the Critical Writing in Art & Design programme at the Royal College of Art. Prompted by the lines “On Margate sands/ I can connect/ Nothing with nothing” from TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, GAPS is an essay that looks for architectural and figurative breaches in the museum and surrounding landscape. [2014] ROLLING HILLS, ROLLING RS makes use of the multiplicity of the word “cadence”, from vocal modulations to topographic undulations. This text appeared in CRITICAL WRITING IN ART & DESIGN masters programme at the RCA: a very short and very disappointed REVIEW OF MAGNIFICENT OBSESSIONS AT THE BARBICAN; THE BELLS OF LONDON ARE TIME MACHINES (which also appeared on; VIBES, PROPER TO MAKE ANY TONE — part-etymology and part-retrieval for the word “vibes” in cultural criticism, as per the likes of Samuel Pepys and Woody Allen. [2010–2015] OTHER BITS of published writing include AN INTERVIEW WITH NELLY BEN HAYOUN for issue one of NOWNESS on the occasion of Trevor Paglen launching THE LAST PICTURES into geostrationary orbit. And here are all the articles I ever wrote for IT’S NICE THAT.


Indirection, as a direction in itself, starts somewhere.


When an o appears, alone, you must decide whether the small circle is an object on the page or a window looking through it. The decision is interchangeable: it is a thing, it is nothing, a thing, no thing.

‘O’ is a simple exclamation. Surprise, pleasure, displeasure, disappointment. No other letter in our alphabet appears to describe the shape of the mouth when we form its sound the way o does — a diagram of its own making — and it can only be uttered, really, as an exhalation. Something is coming out of every o on this page and now that we know this, the temptation is to omit it. But there it is, defiant in omission.

‘O!’ Echoed by your ‘what?!’ Followed by my ‘O, nothing. I just thought of something.’ Every origin starts with o. Adversely, the contained form of the long o is present in every close and open but just open your mouth now and say ‘little o’: the fifteenth letter in the roman alphabet, taken from the Greek, ‘omicron’ (and the fifteenth star in a constellation is called the omicron). But before the Greek there is the sixteenth letter in the Phoenician and ancient Semitic alphabet, O; called ‘‘ayin’, i.e. eye.

A mouth and an eye. Look for Emerson’s (little) Flying Perfect: ‘The one thing which we seek with insatiable desire is to forget ourselves, to be surprised out of our propriety, to lose our sempiternal memory and to do something without knowing how or why; in short to draw a new circle.’ ‘O’ the adjective, to mean ‘ever; always; throughout eternity’ – now obsolete.


For the direction to be indirect you must first know where you stand and from there, the position you adopt is ‘ob-’. As a prefix, its meaning puts a lean on the suffix: in the direction of; towards; against; in the way of; in front of; in view of; on account of.

Take ‘obsolete’, from ‘solent’. A rare and, indeed, obsolete word that means something customary or usual. Together with ob-, what is normal becomes less so, falls into disuse, into obscurity. And then there is ‘obscurity’ — literally ‘made dark’, after a suffixed form of the Indo-European base of ‘sky’.

Ob-, alone, has a short vowel. If ob- were here right now, in human form with a personality to match, he would be forcing his opinion and himself on to others. Ob-, in short, would probably be a nob. Alone, he is incapable of the long and emotional o… However, with the transformative power of a verb to love the attached word feels the push to take a bias on its own form, and, as if to compensate (out of mutual affection), the prefix frequently assimilates to become certain consonants: ‘oc-’ before ‘c-’ and ‘op-’ before ‘p-’; like ‘opponent’ ultimately meaning ‘against place’ and ‘occult’, ‘hidden understanding’.

This willingness to change and be changed, this is indirection at its best. An affixed ob- is not about making something opposite to its former self (though it had a hand in opposite’s own derivation of ‘set against’), but rather apposite. Think of a postcard: the black and white photo shows a couple standing behind the bar in their restaurant; the caption quotes Antoine de Saint-Exupery in sycophantic italics: ‘Love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction’.

The union of ob- and its other is a determination. And the determination for a direction of indirection?


It is not parallel nor at right angles to a specific line. Neither is it expressive of something done in a direct way. To be ‘oblique’ is to be askew/skewed, atilt/tilted and aslant/slanted. AKA, a slash, a sash, a heraldic bend. Or perhaps its bastard brother, a bend sinister: not following the line of father and son; not direct in descent; an oblique.

When you are an oblique, you lean, thus: /.

The suffix of the word is the gesture of intent that throws on a tangent whatever word or thought that proceeds it. It is a deviation pleasingly analogous to what river terminologists might call an ‘elbow of capture’, or ‘stream piracy’.

The ‘-lique’—or ‘-like’ in Middle English—is curious in that they (of the Oxford English Dictionary) are uncertain of its origin. A fairly confident diagonal has been drawn at its probable relation to the near-never-used ‘līmulus’ and ‘līmus’, i.e. ‘somewhat askance’. So oblique is unique but for the single other derivative of līmulus in modern reference: a genus of Merostomata (Order Limulidæ); the king-crab or horse-shoe crab.

Oblique’s use and pronunciation have remained relatively unscathed since its beginnings as the Latin ‘obliquus’. And, right away, various professions adopted an oblique mode. There is much borrowing between them for metaphorical and literal purposes, for example, in geometry, an oblique line is anything not angled at 90° increments. In poetry, Andrew Marvell uses parallel lines to describe impossible love, and contrasts them with oblique lines capable of intersecting, representative of realised love: ‘As lines, so loves oblique may well / Themselves in every angle greet: / But ours so truly parallel, / Though infinite can never meet’. Poetry in general seems to have always been a favourite recipient of the adjective. Look to the dictionary for the earliest uses of the word and there is an instance by R. Higden in 1425: ‘The office of a poete is to transmute those thynges whiche be doen truly in to other similitudes in oblike figuraciones with pulcritude.’

That passage neatly marries a sentiment given by Ted Hughes in an interview in 1995:

‘Maybe all poetry, insofar as it moves us and connects with us, is a revealing of something that the writer doesn’t actually want to say but desperately needs to communicate, to be delivered of. Perhaps it’s the need to keep it hidden that makes it poetic—makes it poetry. The writer daren’t actually put it into words, so it leaks out obliquely, smuggled through analogies.’

The indirectness of prose, in particular allusion, can be likened to an oblique motion in music. That is, in a chord or harmony, one note played consistently under or over the scaling of others. What is more, if you visualise this, the topography of such an image matches an architectural use of the word — the oblique function, advanced by Claude Parent and Paul Virilio — which make slopes a theory that play with the syncline or anticline of what we consider ‘ground’ or ‘wall’. And with this function they construct an experience of space through the exertion on the body as it navigates it.

Obliquity in writing is to take a direction that is somehow perverse to a chosen destination, and yet you (reader) arrive there just the same. ‘He never gives you the real… ulcer… he talks about its symptoms, ya?’ In an interview, Joseph Brodsky marvelled at the circuitous account WH Auden gives of civilisation, of the human condition. ‘But he doesn’t give you the direct description of it, he gives you the oblique way. And then when you read a line like “The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day” — well, things begin to change. [Laughs].’

The potential of oblique in a sentence can move whole buildings. It rejects a car park logic of a thing beside, along or next-to. A description of a house oblique to the road suggests either the builder or the city planner set out to defy what was already there. But oblique itself does not fix to change a thing, rather it skews the angle by which it is seen or/then the light which allows us to see it or/then our understanding of how this ‘light’ might affect our perception of the buildings, objects, ideas that surround the subject.

To regard something obliquely however, is fairly accusatory. In most cases the look is best served with ‘askance’. It is generally meant as a squinting suspicion directed from the corner of eyes, though writers have variously used it for a dramatic direction of envy, jealousy or disdain. The word (from the 15th century) has an ‘etymology unknown’ but (once more with a linguistic diagonal) is suggestive of the Italian ‘a schiancio’, meaning bias, sloping or slopingly, aslope; across. Where ‘schiancio’ is from Old French ‘esclanc’, ‘gauche’; left hand.

There is something in the notion of ambidexterity as a kind of obliqueness. For example, the performance of simultaneously writing on both facing pages, as left sentences chase right sentences and arms move crabwise, gently pivoting at the elbows. The ‘ambi-’ part, ‘on both sides’, has a deference to some of oblique’s archaic friends. Namely ‘overthwarthly’ (something placed crosswise) and ‘ambagious’ – both of which are now, according to the dictionary, ‘obs’. The latter synonym is ‘full of ambages’. In terms of paths, ways and language, an ambage literally means about+drive. It is roundabout, a circumlocution, and can be used for deceit (equivocation), for concealment (ambiguity), for delay (beating around the bush), which is all to say an indirect mode of speech — oratio obliqua — and mysterious ways of action.

A person in a state of obliquity specifically matching the description of neither parallel to nor at right-angles from the ground is likely drunk. Obliqueness is encouraged when drink and drugs and high emotion are involved. Anything to throw one off-kilter, off the pavement, off your face. Get drunk! Get drunk with Baudelaire! ‘One should always be drunk. That’s all that matters;/ that’s our one imperative need. So as not to feel Time’s/ horrible burden one which breaks your shoulders and bows/ you down, you must get drunk without cease.’ Shrug off the vertical plane or the perpendicular stake that holds you upright and tilt away from time the way the earth tilts away from the sun (read astron. ‘obliquity’).

There is a saying, and the accent is Irish, that to be properly cock-eyed and crapulous is to walk on both sides of the road at once. Our bipedal selves are innately asymmetric — the left brain governing the right side, et cetera — and to be pedestrian is to compensate for a personal axial tilt that gives us each a unique gait/lope/strut/mince. Beckett’s eponymous Watt advances due east by the following manner:

‘…to turn his bust as far as possible towards the north and at the same time to fling out his right leg as far as possible towards the south, and then to turn his bust as far as possible towards the south and at the same time to fling out his left leg as far as possible towards the north, and then again to turn…’

Ad nauseum. As such a motion would, Steven Connor writes, leave the subject ‘merely rocking stiff-legged from side to side’. In such a ‘chaotic compromise between the dimensions of up and down, left and right’ and an attempt to cover both sides at once, in order for Watt to move, ‘there must be an inaugural leaning, or movement of falling forward’.

Connor makes the connection between Watt’s forced imbalance to clinamen, the ‘swerve’ of atoms as they fall: ‘If it were not for this swerve, everything would fall downwards like raindrops through the abyss of space’, Lucretius stated: ‘No collision would take place and no impact of atom upon atom would be created. Thus nature would never have created anything.’ This infinitesimal deviation — the oblique pathway — is determination and freedom of mind and will and is illustrative of all things that occur out of seeming nothingness. In particular, we might consider the oblique way, the indirect path that thoughts sometimes take and, out of nowhere, strike us. Virginia Woolf wrote: ‘Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness’.

This mark or image left on the mind can then be acted upon and Lucretius takes, for his example, the act of walking. First there is the impulse and then the mind ‘bestirs itself that it wishes to go and to step forwards, at once it strikes all the mass of spirit that is distributed abroad through limbs and frame in all the body. And this is easy to do, since the spirit is held in close combination with it. The spirit in its turn strikes the body, and so the whole mass is gradually pushed on and moves…’.

Oblique is the ‘inaugural leaning’, the direction of indirection.