Saturday, June 30, 2012

The return of the neezled gobslotch

Now that mass media ensures most of us speak some variant of estuary, it’s hard to believe that less than 200 years ago, people from different parts of England would have had immense trouble understanding each other. Old House Books have republished a rather magnificent work from 1839 by one William Holloway, in which he sought to record examples of regional dialect, partly because he was aware that social upheavals would soon make English more homogeneous. Retitled Telling Dildrams and Talking Whiff-Whaff, with an introduction by the big daddy of modern linguistics David Crystal, it’s clearly a project of amateur enthusiasm rather than diligent scholarship on Holloway’s part. The author himself seems baffled by some of the definitions and derivations – “I never heard the word” he protests under the entry for punger, a Kent/Sussex term for a crab – and his grasp of the subject is also stronger for some parts of the country than others. But that doesn’t really matter, as the book will offer hours of delight to anyone who revels in the vast daftness of the English language.

Some of the entries are simply synonyms for words and concepts that are still familiar, but they deserve to be revived because they sound so magnificent. Just roll a couple of these round your mouth: clinkabell (icicle); flurch (abundance); grobble (to make holes); neezled (slightly intoxicated); rumgumptious (pompous); trollibags (tripe); aren’t they so much better than the words we use now? Others (askew, butter-fingered, dumpy, mug for a face, sack meaning dismissal) would require no explanation to a modern reader, so appear to have made the tricky transition from obscure regional dialect to standard usage since Holloway’s time. Handy insults abound, whether you’re confronted with a fudgy (“a little fat person”), a gobslotch (“such a one being apt to gobble his food”) or a loll-poop (“a sluggish, sedentary lounger”). But there are others where even the definition will leave the modern reader demanding a little more clarification: copper-clouts are glossed as “a kind of spatter-dashes, worn on the small of the leg”, loblolly is “any odd mixture of spoon-meat” and a cow-jockey is “a beast jobber”.

The last may sound a bit hog-grubbing (“swinishly sordid”), but early Victorian sensibilities demand that the sorts of words for which 12-year-old boys used to trawl dictionaries are absent. Where any sort of improper behaviour is under consideration, the good Mr Holloway is careful to highlight his own stern disapproval. A dolly-tripe, a mawks, a rubbacrock, a sosse-brangle and a trub are variously defined as sluts and slatterns while mending-the-muck-heap is 
A coarse, vulgar, romping bout; where, if one falls down others fall over, till there is a promiscuous heap of either, or of both sexes, of course not always very delicate nor very decent.
which sounds pretty good to me. In fact, a number of words that we might expect to be indelicate turn out to be entirely innocent: crap is “a smart, sudden sound”; a pissmote is just an ant; to poo is to pull or pluck; and a shag is variously a cormorant, a blackguard or a humble piece of bread and cheese.

The whole collection brings to mind those writers who were adept at creating words that sounded crazy but plausible; it could be a concordance for Lear and Carroll, Joyce and Dahl, maybe even Rambling Syd Rumpo. So don’t be a pollrumptious grizzle-demundy. Just get yourself a copy of this lexicographic gape-seed and let’s see some of these words back in action. Otherwise I’ll become frampled and may even hit you with my plunt.

PS: And here’s some more fun with funny words. Hat tip to Samira Ahmed.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Helene Hegemann and the sincerest form of self-flattery

The controversial German author Helene Hegemann is interviewed in The Observer and (inevitably) on the agenda are the accusations of plagiarism that surrounded her novel Axolotl Roadkill. Apparently she lifted a total of 14 sentences from a blogger called Airen, but the act is pretty explicitly flagged up because the lines in question are specifically about the whole ill-defined area of theft and appropriation and cultural sampling:
Berlin is here to mix everything with everything, man… I steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels my imagination… because my work and my theft are authentic as long as something speaks directly to my soul. It’s not where I take things from – it’s where I take them to.
And then, just in case we haven’t got the joke, the English translator interpolates the exchange:
“So you didn’t make it up?”
“No, it’s from some blogger.”
Hegemann defends herself further, pointing out that Airen half-inched the disputed lines from the film director Jim Jarmusch, who took them from Jean-Luc Godard and a sign in a gallery. (Do bloggers operate under a laxer moral code than published authors have to endure, one wonders? And if so, is it OK to lift from them even if they’ve lifted, or is that a bit like receiving stolen goods?) Ultimately, though, she questions the very basis on which such finger-pointing is founded: “But I’ve said it again and it’s still my best defence: there’s no such thing as originality, just authenticity.” And she certainly has said it many times already, and was saying it over a year ago when I first wrote about her. Which does prompt the question of whether it’s permissible to plagiarise oneself, in which case any number of writers (Paul Auster, Nicholson Baker, Haruki Murakami all come to mind, and I’m sure you’ve got a few candidates of your own) should be thrown into the mix alongside Hegemann. In any case, new editions of Axolotl Roadkill will come with detailed footnotes attributing all the borrowed material, even if that flies in the face of her own contention that everything’s borrowed anyway.

There have, of course, been footnotes in works of fiction before, but they tend to occupy the same fictional universe as the main text (eg Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell or The Third Policeman); a real-world reader won’t be able to toddle off to the library and check the references. Even when a writer appears at first glance to be playing fair (I’m looking at you, Mr Eliot), the notes usually provoke further puzzlement on top of the questions they sought to answer. I can see why Hegemann and her publishers feel the need to clarify matters; ultimately though, they should ask if the footnotes are just to keep the lawyers off their backs, or whether they actually make for a better book.

Monday, June 25, 2012

In defence of pretension

So I was reading Richard King’s How Soon Is Now, about the people behind the rise and fall of (ugh) indie music in the UK and I was thinking there really wasn’t anything else to say (Tony Wilson was on the telly, Geoff Travis had an afro ho ho, Spiral Scratch, yada etc) when we get to Daniel Miller aka The Normal and founder of the Mute label. And then this:
The tracks ‘TVOD’ and ‘Warm Leatherette’ were two corrosive and minimal songs that sounded as though they had been intimidated out of a synthesiser.
“Intimidated”. Yes. Oh, yes, that’s good. Oh no, hang on, perhaps it’s pretentious. Actually, that may not be such a bad thing, according to Pat Long’s The History of the NME, another recent book that covers much the same ground as King’s, from a slightly different perspective. In it, Ian Penman stands his ground:
The cliché that grew up at the time around me and Paul [Morley] was that we were pretentious, which I’m not ashamed of... Pretentious is just another word for aspiring to something, for trying something out.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

What’s the Thai for “Ooh la la”?

A few days ago, the TV show Thailand’s Got Talent featured a woman who did a (bad) painting with her bare breasts. The event spun out into multiple different directions, some of them more predictable than others: the female judge who disliked the act so vociferously was revealed to have done something similar in a fashion magazine a few years previously; the official complaints that this was somehow contrary to “Thai values” met with the response that Thailand has a massive and thriving sex industry that makes this sort of thing look pretty milk-and-water and in any case, bare boobs were pretty standard outdoor wear less than 100 years ago; and the whole kerfuffle seems to have been a concocted stunt anyway, with the so-called artist having been hired and instructed by the producers for publicity purposes.

I wouldn’t have minded, except that the act wasn’t even original. The French artist Yves Klein did pretty much the same thing in the 1960s. And he didn’t ask people to vote for it.

(Thanks to Jinda Wedel for getting me thinking.)

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

That’s not me

I’m going to Vietnam in a few days’ time, so I had to get a visa, so I had to get some photos done. Thailand doesn’t have photo booths; instead, you go into a camera or print shop where someone takes your photo to the precise specification of the task to which it will be put, because the pics for passports and ID cards and work permits and visas to various countries all need to be different sizes and shapes.

Except that when I went to pick up the prints, they’d clearly gone PhotoShop crazy on my picture, zapping the pimples and eye bags, doing a digital botox job on my forehead and I think they even toned down the grey in my beard. What’s left is a cleaned-up, hyperreal simulacrum of the hideous mess I see in the mirror every morning, which would be understandable if I were starring in an advertising campaign for some overpriced moisturiser, but this is meant to be for an official document that lets me get into a country. The photograph is the proof that I’m the person to whom the details on the document apply. If the photograph doesn’t look like me, doesn’t that make the whole thing a bit pointless? It may as well be a picture of George Clooney or Winnie Mandela or a patch of moss.

One could delve into the realms of social anthropology and deduce that the buffing and sheening done to my sort-of-likeness is part of the Asian desire for harmony in all aspects of life. Thai people tend to tell you what you want to hear, but to them this isn’t a lie; they genuinely believe that keeping you happy is more important than keeping you in touch with reality. (If you want to see how disturbed they get when reality intrudes, read the comments on this article.) Maybe I was meant to think I really do look like that. In fact, the picture won’t even make me look better, because it will only ever be used in conjunction with my real face, and its weird, glossy smoothness will just throw my own saggy, pockmarked decrepitude into brutal relief.

The funny thing is, I bet the Vietnamese immigration guys won’t give a damn that the picture looks nothing like me; but if it turns out to be the wrong size, I’ve got no chance.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Queen’s Birthday Honours: Armando Iannucci and the bees

I don’t actually have a problem with the basic idea of a state handing out shiny nicknacks to reward its citizens for their various deeds of good-eggery. It gives a certain coherence to that vague concept of being a national treasure; official recognition to the fact that, on the whole, the British people think David Attenborough or Judi Dench are not only talented in their respective fields, but also the sort of folk you wouldn’t mind having a pint with.

What does irk me is the hierarchy of the system. When Jenny Agutter found out she’d got an OBE, might her shiny happiness have been a little scuffed by the knowledge that Kate Winslet has a CBE, which is a more prestigious decoration? How do these distinctions arise? Winslet has an Oscar, which Agutter doesn’t, so maybe that counts for something. But Kenneth Branagh doesn’t have an Oscar, and he got a knighthood, which is one louder than a CBE. Meanwhile, the government has reinstated the BEM (British Empire Medal), supposedly as a metal-and-ribbon manifestation of their Big Society catchphrase, to include long-serving lollipop ladies and milkmen and the like. But why couldn’t those people just be given MBEs, the next step down from the O? Or would that have upset white-collar recipients of that order, local government officials and Rotary chairmen and the like, who are quite happy to be seen as less wonderful than Jenny Agutter, but still want to be maintain their distinction from the people who clean their drains? But of course, we’re not allowed to mention social class, are we?

The latest round of gong-giving has thrown up one intriguing little controversy; not, as is normally the case, about the refusal of an honour, but about an acceptance. Armando Iannucci, deadpan kebabber of the powerful and their foibles, has been awarded an OBE. Alastair Campbell, supposedly the model for the monstrous Malcolm Tucker, suggested via Twitter that this was inappropriate. And then it really kicked off.

For what it’s worth, I find myself in the uncomfortable position of agreeing with Campbell. Iannucci is a satirist and should occupy the role of a court jester, tolerated with gritted teeth by the establishment but never quite welcomed into its bosom – at least not until his best and most ferocious days are behind him. As it stands, all his OBE signifies is that someone in the depths of that establishment considers his achievements to be less impressive than those of Richard Stilgoe or Tessa Jowell, but at the same time more worthwhile than those of one Geoffrey Hopkinson, an 84-year-old beekeeper. I hope that makes him feel good.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Parsons in paradise: Catching the Sun

I read a Tony Parsons book once, you know. The Big Breakfast of blessed memory wanted to set up a readers’ panel, offering opinions (and marks out of 10) on books that hungover students might want to take on holiday with them. The books they asked me to check out were Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, which I’d already read and enjoyed, and to which, I decided, I would give eight; something utterly horrible by Marian Keyes that involved a female protagonist so utterly wet and useless that the whole thing was, I concluded, some sort of hamfisted satire of post- (or maybe pre-) feminism, and I gave it two; and one by Tony Parsons. I think it was Man and Boy. It was OK, and I thought it deserved maybe five or six. Then The Big Breakfast decided they wouldn’t be doing the readers’ panel after all and I never read another Tony Parsons book again.

Until now. Glancing at the best-seller lists and the displays in airport bookshops, it would seem that Mr Parsons’ career as a fiction writer seems to have been ticking over quite nicely without my patronage – better than The Big Breakfast managed, at least. As I understand it, he deals with ordinary, imperfect but essentially decent blokes, at odds with the modern world but with a core belief in family and doing the right thing that sees them through in the end. It’s Nick Hornby, if Nick Hornby hadn’t been to Cambridge; Parsons men are pricklier, more raw, without a semi-ironic attachment to Arsenal or Springsteen they can use as an emotional carapace; Parsons men are not played by Colin Firth or John Cusack, certainly not by Hugh Grant.

The only reason I picked up Parsons’ latest novel, Catching the Sun, is that it’s set in Thailand. Apart from that, it seems to fit the successful formula: the central character, Tom Finn, is a solid fellow, a builder-turned-driver, bit of a temper but basically a good bloke, beset by the economic and social vicissitudes of contemporary life, but kept going by his devotion both to his family and to the notion of family itself. A run-in with the idiocies of the English legal system (he apprehends two burglars but he’s the one who finds himself in court) coincides with the chance to start a new life on the island of Phuket. So off he goes, wife and two kids and all.

I should point out that there have been many, many books written by foreigners about Thailand. The majority of them are shockingly inept, badly written, shoddily produced, cheap concoctions of cliché and wish-fulfilment, mostly about prostitutes and/or private detectives. Simply by virtue of having received the attentions of a professional editor, Parsons’ book leaps into the top 10 per cent. I found no spelling mistakes. There’s a start.

Of course, there are still areas where one could nitpick. The older Thai couple who become surrogate parents to Tom and his family are referred to as Mr and Mrs Botan, which immediately hits a wrong note. Surnames are rarely used in everyday discourse in Thailand, the standard form of address being an honorific – usually the non-gender-specific “Khun” – followed by the first name or nickname; so the couple would be known as, say, Khun Somchai and Khun Pu.

More significantly, the mechanism by which Tom and his family get to stay on Phuket really strains the bounds of credibility. When he gets there, he’s employed by a property shark as a driver, a job which would almost certainly go to a local; his appointment would attract bitter resentment. Thailand is cheaper than Britain, but we never find out how much he’s paid or how that’s supposed to support him, his wife and two kids. When his employer is busted for running a boiler room scam, Tom is allowed to stay in the country, despite the fact he’s been working without a permit, a redemption that would only happen upon payment of substantial backhanders to the police and other authorities involved. Indeed, the corruption that bedevils Thailand is barely mentioned; the only visible policeman is a gruff xenophobe but seems to be entirely clean. Such cops do exist in the country, but their presence would be a matter for some surprised comment at least, especially in the distinctly Wild-West locale of Phuket. The 2004 tsunami strikes about halfway through the narrative, but the plucky locals pick themselves up and work together to rebuild their lives. The vexed questions of illegal development and property fraud that accompanied the disaster are discreetly avoided.

Parsons does touch on some of the downsides of this supposed paradise isle, such as prostitution and the sometimes uneasy relation between the various ethnicities that form the country, contrary to the veneer of happy unity; Mr Botan’s distrust of the chao ley (sea gypsies) is pretty true to life. But his narrator seems for the most part to have swallowed the tourist board depiction of the place. The people are, for the most part, kind and friendly and helpful, a tired stereotype that has been part of Thailand’s corporate branding for the past few decades. Every few pages there’s yet another reference to how lovely the beach is, or the blueness of the sea, or the glories of the wildlife.

The latter gives us some nice descriptive pieces, as Tom’s son is a budding naturalist and a trove of information about the local gibbons and turtles. The debt to My Family and Other Animals is obvious, as Parsons has happily acknowledged, but he seems to have forgotten that half the delight of that book came from Gerald Durrell’s observations of his barmy relatives. Parsons seems rather better at depicting animals than people. The locals remain ciphers, but this may reflect the narrator’s inability to get under their skin; most of the farangs seem to amble around in a daze of sunshine, cheap beer and cute women. They’re intoxicated by the whole thing, but we don’t get a sense of why they are happier here than they would be in Ibiza.

This inability to build characters would be annoying enough if Parsons were being explicitly polemical and his creations were mere props for his opinions. But he doesn’t even try to do that. Every now and then Tom makes the point of reminding us, sometimes while choking back tears, that family is important; the scenery on Phuket is wonderful; it’s wrong to hurt animals. Well, yes. And? If the book has a purpose, it’s to take a Parsons man and plonk him down somewhere unlikely, as if he’s desperately trying to squeeze a little more juice from a dying franchise. If it’s Book Five, this must be Thailand.

One of Tom’s fellow expats is Nick Kazan, a tabloid hack who takes an interest in his legal plight in England, then implausibly finds himself on the same beach a few months later. Although the lure of Phuket is too strong for him to resist, Nick’s muse doesn’t stay around for long:
“But it’s strange. When I had been here for a day, I felt I could write a book about the place. Then when I had been here for a week, I thought I could write a short story.” He smiled and shrugged. “And now I don’t know what to say.” 
Nor, apart from repeated affirmations that family and home and beaches and gibbons are all essentially good things, does Parsons.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The BBC, the Jubilee, the Daily Mail and the hard cash value of abject stupidity

I won’t, if you don’t mind, spend too much time pontificating on the BBC’s coverage of last weekend’s Jubilee fandango, chiefly because I didn’t watch it, apart from a brief YouTube clip of a hula-hooping Grace Jones, who was utterly superb, and a rather briefer moment of Cheryl Cole sounding as if all the toilet attendants in that world had chosen that moment to punch her in the vocal cords; or maybe she’d caught Prince Philip’s bladder infection. Apparently the rest of it wasn’t very good. 

But the subsequent commotion over the inadequacy of the Corporation’s work is about far more than mediocre pop stars and posh people looking at boats. As I understand it, the problem is that the BBC’s programming over the weekend was geared too much to celebrities who didn’t know what they were talking about. My instinct is that this is indeed a bad thing: the shift in all news media over the past 30 or so years from an emphasis on empirical facts and informed debate to vapid, glossy, concocted quasi-realities where fame (however transient) trumps ability is something to be deplored. 

What sticks in my craw, however, is that the media outlets leading the charge against the BBC are the worst offenders when it comes to replacing hard news with vacuous, airbrushed twattery. Look at the homepage of the Daily Mail. Look at the stripe of shrill banality down the right-hand side, the gibbering sub-Kardashians falling out of limos and bikinis, the gittish prattle about shoes and hair and cellulite, the cheerful dishonesty that this cynical collusion with media PR machines might in some way be described as journalism.

Ah, says the Mail, but that’s just celeb fluff. The Jubilee was a royal occasion, and worthy of more respect. Well pardon me, but which were the media organisations that hitched themselves to Diana three decades ago and turned a stuffy, self-effacing entity into just another manifestion of Celebrity Inc? Who was it who started prattling about the Queen’s grandson’s wife’s sister’s arse? Was it the BBC? Was it? The Mail and the Telegraph and the Sun are not annoyed that the BBC’s coverage of the jubilee was superficial, banal and ill-informed. They’re furious because superficial banality is what they do and they don’t like anyone else encroaching on their turf.

Now, I believe in a free press. If the Daily Mail wants to make a few quid from morons looking at pictures of other morons, it should be allowed to do so. But isn’t there a certain level of hypocrisy, cognitive dissonance even, in burrowing so deeply into the steaming shitpit of vapid, pointless celebrity, then shrieking like Cheryl Cole’s singing coach when the BBC skims a little off the top?

The problem, of course, is nothing to do with the Jubilee. The problem is the licence fee. The privilege of public funding brings with it the responsibility to maintain a certain level of quality, below which the Daily Mail happily ducks every day. But if everyone pays the licence fee, that includes a certain proportion of fudge-brained Kardashian fans who switch off if anything more demanding stumbles into view; and the BBC has a duty to cater to them as well. There’s a serious debate to be had here, and a difficult one because it touches not only on money but also on notions of cultural hierarchy and social class, and the British find it very embarrassing to talk about such things; although since the mainstream media seems entirely capable of celebrating the embodiment of inherited status and privilege without once mentioning social class, maybe it’s entirely possible to sidestep that particular elephant. But until the Mail admits that it wants to fart raw, wet stupidity into the dull eyes of its readers and what it objects to is subsidised competition for said eyes, its own contribution to that debate should not be taken seriously.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Orville that ends well

Maybe I’ve got a heart of congealed kitty-litter, but I really can’t find it in me to get offended by the news that Dutch artist Bart Jansen has turned his late cat into a remote-controlled helicopter. It’s not as if Jansen slaughtered Orville for the purpose: the luckless moggy was hit by a car. And the artist actually knew and loved Orville when he was alive, which distinguishes the relationship from that between Damien Hirst and the various anonymous beasts that he’s dismembered and pickled over the years. Orville loved watching birds and that’s why his friend decided this was a good way to commemorate him. I find the whole thing quite touching, to be honest.

I seem to be in a minority though, as Jansen puts himself on a collision course with three quintessentially modern attitudes: squeamishness about death; sentimentality about animals; and disdain for the supposed excesses of contemporary art. But art has always concerned itself with death; think of the countless Crucifixions and Pietà in galleries around the world. And all art has been modern at some point, and most of it has annoyed someone at some point. Furthermore, if you’re really concerned about the sacred dignity of animals, take a look at this:

In Japan, meanwhile, artists have to push a little harder if they want people’s shock bulbs to light up, as we see in the case of Mao Sugiyama, who served up his own genitals (with Italian parsley and button mushrooms) to five lucky diners in a Tokyo restaurant last month. Which makes poor old Orville seem positively earthbound.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Pity we haven’t got a bit of rope

Admit it, you don’t really understand the Euro crisis. And you don’t understand Beckett either, not properly. I certainly don’t. But we all know what they mean. 

(By Michael Cembalest at ZeroHedge.)

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Jubilee, schmubilee

When it comes to the crunch, I just don’t care. I’d be quite relaxed if the British monarchy were to resign en masse, but I wouldn’t want to see guillotines in Grosvenor Square. I see the institution as something akin to subsidised opera: in principle it makes no sense, but it keeps a few strange, posh people out of mischief for what is, in the grand scheme of things, not that much money. There are more important battles to be fought, surely.

The difference is, of course, that opera is a minority pursuit, while a majority of Britons want us to stay happy and glorious. But do they really? They lurve the Queen, but don’t much fancy Charles, and would rather the succession skip a generation to the husband of the sister of the woman with the famous arse. But monarchy doesn’t happen that way; the whole point of it is that you get what you’re given. If the genetic tombola deemed that the next monarch would be Prince Andrew or Princess Michael of Kent or the second corgi from the left or Wee Jimmy Krankie, that’s what would happen, opinion polls be damned. Which suggests that people want a monarchy but can’t be bothered to exercise the intellectual curiosity needed to understand how it really works. Monarchy doesn’t have the democratic impulse of Britain’s Got Talent, but like all manifestations of celebrity culture, it demands a certain suspension of credulity.

Still, as I say, I’m fairly laid back about the whole thing. There’s a temptation to play the Smiths or the Sex Pistols or even McCarthy very loud, but ultimately what would be the point? If you’re doing something Jubilesque over this weekend; maybe trying to break the world record for lying in a bowl of slightly-off Coronation chicken; or watching Gary Barlow galumphing around on the roof of Buck House, desperately wanting a knighthood but stopping short of actually offering a sacrifice of his firstborn to the sovereign; or just making the same joke about the word “bunting” over and over and over again; then I hope you have a nice time of it.

As long as you remember that when you turn 86, they won’t come to your party.