Brushing My Tongues

You can tell I’m manic this morning; no sooner have I finished one post than I want to write another. I’ve started listening to the Greek conversation practice and it’s so hilarious I just had to tell you about it. They start with things you do in the morning and it begins normally enough; I get out of bed, I make some coffee, I brush my teeth etc but then it goes on to I argue with the children and I avoid the neighbours before proceeding to I get on the bus followed by I have a nap. Well I guess after all that arguing and avoiding people you’d need a nap. The phrases are much too fast; having taught both French and English I know you need to go a lot slower, but listening is good. The trouble I’ve had with learning Ancient Greek is that it’s totally book-based, whereas I learn best if I can hear the language spoken. I might get the Italian one as well, which I’ll find a lot easier because (a) they have the same alphabet so I can visualise the words and (b) I already know some Italian. It’s slightly disconcerting though because it begins with a phone conversation;

Woman: Hello. How are you?

Man: I’m fine. What are you doing?

Woman: I’m washing the dishes. What are you doing?

Man: I’m watching TV.

Hmm. Language-learning does tend to be more stereotyped because stereotypes are easier to recognise. I once had a Punjabi teacher who had a fund of sayings in that language, most of which were horrendously sexist. Know your audience, guys! A propos of which I once, as an English teacher in Spain, showed my class an episode of Fawlty Towers and was struck by how insulting the character of Manuel must seem to them.

So today’s going to be a bit linguistic I think.

Kirk out

ReJoyce! It’s Bloomsday!

Today, the day after my birthday, is a special celebration in Ireland; June 16th is Bloomsday, or the day when all the action in Ulysses is set, so-called after the main character Leopold Bloom. I have to fess up: I’ve never been a great fan of Joyce. Undoubted genius though he was (and I say this as one who appreciates that, not as one who’s been told it) I find the longer novels completely unreadable. I struggled through Ulysses, only because I had to, and foundered on the impenetrable rocks of Finnegan’s Wake. It’s a noble experiment to try to write a novel that stands outside time but in the end it’s unreadable. I do like the shorter works though and I especially appreciate his puns, my favourite of which is ‘funferal’, his word for a traditional wake.

But I like the fact that all Ireland celebrates Bloomsday. It’s not just some hook-up for the chattering classes but something which engages the whole community because Joyce was himself working class. More than that; there’s something in Celtic cultures which means that the arts run across classes and engage everyone, rather than being a mainly middle-class thing; I guess it’s a bit like the Rebus events in Edinburgh.

Here’s what’s on offer this year in Dublin.

Why can’t we do the same here in England? If you tell most ‘ordinary’ people about celebrations for Shakespeare’s birthday they will groan; because the Shakespeare they’ve been subjected to is like this scene in Dead Poets Society. This makes me roar and gnash my teeth, because it SO doesn’t have to be like that. Shakespeare is – and always was – universal. He’s for everyone. He’s like a pantomime; he’s got the cross-dressing and the knob gags as well as the sublime love interest and the yearning; he’s got everything. And the idea that we should all dress up and pay a fortune and sit still and quiet and listen earnestly is Just Not Right. It should be more like a pantomime with shouting and wailing and ‘oh yes he is! – Oh no he isn’t’ and crying and laughing. It should be joyous. To paraphrase Leonard Cohen, ‘Shakespeare taken serious by many; Shakespeare taken joyous by a few.’ The Celtic cultures do this so much better than we do because they don’t have any truck with pretension.

*sigh*

Ah well. I may log onto some of the Bloomsday events since they’re all online. In the meantime, I had a good birthday yesterday; no cake (I’m not a fan of cake and it would be a serious candle challenge) but some sitting in the garden, an excellent bike ride and pizza in the evening followed by strawberries and lemon sorbet. I love sorbet.

And that’s today. Happy Bloomsday. Happy Bloomsday to us, Happy Bloomsday to us, Happy Bloomsday dear Dublin…

Kirk out

I Demand to Have a Fluffy Thing

It’s interesting to compare the vocabularies of different languages. Spanish, for example, has two words for ‘to be’, one permanent and one temporary, though Inuit does not, contrary to popular opinion, have ten words for snow. But what is true is that the English have lots of words for rain: drizzle, mizzle, downpour, stair rods, cats and dogs, shower, light shower, scattered shower, torrent. pelting, tempestuous… I could go on and on like the rain itself has done this past month, and the reason is obvious; we get a lot of rain. Not only that, the rain is unpredictable and very variable, hence we have a large rain-soaked vocabulary. One of my favourite quotes about rain was heard at a bus stop somewhere in Yorkshire after someone remarked that the rain had come earlier than forecast: ‘Course, this in’t the proper rain. This is just condensation.’

George Orwell’s theory of language posits that without a word for something we are unable to have a concept of it. As Blackadder says, the Germans are evil and heartless because they have no word for ‘fluffy’. But I would dispute that – not the fluffy thing, the other thing* – because there are plenty of things we go around noticing but cannot yet name.

*although possibly also the fluffy thing

Douglas Adams’ Meaning of Liff gives words to things that have no name as yet. It’s an interesting linguistic exercise but it’s mainly comic; the comedy arising from the fact that we recognise the things but just haven’t named them yet. Such as the ‘garden sprinkler’ thing your mouth does when you open it at a certain angle (‘Skoonsprout’) or the way cars all slow down and drive in formation when a police car is among them ‘Grimbister.’

But once we start to properly think about these things we immediately invent words for them. As a child I felt that the broaching of a new jar of jam or Marmite required some sort of ceremony; the surface was so smooth and perfect, I wanted to say something as I dipped my knife in for the first time. So I invented the word ‘pervise’ and solemnly intoned ‘I pervise this jar of Marmite.’ Later I discovered something in my eye which only half seemed to be there, something I couldn’t explain and so christened it ‘boodies and frooths’ which summed up the uncanny feeling they gave me. I told my mother they were monsters but it wasn’t until I grew up that I discovered they were floaters in the eye.

In his book Mezzanine, Nicholson Baker shows us all the minutiae of life that we are only subliminally aware of. I thought I was the only person obsessed by the handrail on the Tube escalator but Baker is too; he describes in great detail how the handrail moves slightly faster than the stairs so that you have to keep adjusting where your hand is. It’s such a relief to read a book by someone as obsessed with minutiae as I am; who notices the tiny gap between lift and floor or the bit of the handrail where it seems to be stitched together like a rough wound, which if you watch for long enough comes round again and again. Here is a book detailing all the things I ever wanted to think about but was told weren’t important and in the end didn’t have time for. It is a joy.

I’m sort of groping towards a point here but I can’t yet pinpoint exactly what it is. In other news we’ve been watching the Netflix series Unorthodox, based on a true story of a woman’s escape from an ultra-orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn. It’s very gripping. And before that we were enthralled by Little Fires Everywhere on Amazon Prime (yes, I know I hate Amazon but it wasn’t my account) the story of the unravelling of a supposedly inclusive community in small-town America.

Kirk out

The Snot’s Progress

I realise that’s a bit of an off-putting title so I’ll try to make up for it with sparkling content. Actually I really loathe it when people refer to writing that way; it’s not ‘content’, it’s writing. You hear people describing themselves as ‘content-creators’ – why? It sounds like you’re putting toothpaste into a tube, instead of choosing the best words in the best order and making the finest piece of writing of which you are capable. I think Orwell was right; language is sacred (not that he actually put it like that) and that the destruction of language is the last victory of an oppressive state. But who needs Newspeak when you have people voluntarily calling what they write ‘content’?

Ugh.

Anyway, apart from dealing with the aforementioned snot which with depressing predictability has now settled on my lungs, what have I been writing? I’ve not been at it full time this week but have nonetheless managed to come up with a new story featuring Dickens… I’m quite excited about that. And I’m starting to adapt my radio play into a stage play for a competition. The closing date’s July, so I’ll have to get a move on.

In between all this I’ve been listening to old episodes of Mark Steel’s in Town. If you don’t know this, it’s a series where comedian Mark Steel visits a town, spends some time going round and talking to people and then comes up with a half-hour routine which celebrates the absurdities of the place. There’s nowhere else this could happen but Britain. Where else can we laugh at our contradictions? Where else do we have goats running wild (Lynton and Lynmouth) or monkeys roaming the streets or planes crossing the road (Gibraltar) or half-finished bridges (Bedford). He picks up the nuances of the place; its prejudices and politics and without being overtly political (though he is firmly on the left) he pulls off the amazing trick of celebrating the place and bringing people together whilst taking the piss. I think this is a much underestimated series and I urge you to listen. He’s yet to visit Loughborough but I hope he does; I’d love to see what he makes of the sock man and the Carillon.

from Pinterest; image removed on request
Loughborough Carillon - Loughborough

I’m off now to listen to Alexei Sayle on Desert Island Discs.

Kirk out

Cassocks, Hassocks or Tussocks?

Or mattocks? This morning OH got confused between cassocks and hassocks (as we all do from time to time) and I found it very funny. But why? It’s not always amusing to confuse words so why are some funnier than others? Every comic writer knows there are some words which are intrinsically funny and some which just fall flat. Victoria Wood was a prime example of someone who knew the comic power of language and amplified the argot she grew up with in a way we immediately recognise. But what makes a word funny? Why are hassocks and cassocks funny? Is it because they sound a bit rude? Is it the juxtaposition of the ecclesiastical and the naughty that amuses? I think we should be told.

But I don’t know if comic writers are the best people to tell us. Victoria Wood is sadly no longer around but in any case the process of writing, the choosing of words, is instinctive. You don’t consult a thesaurus and make a shortlist of the best words; you juggle a few in your mind and pick the one that suggests itself. You might say the words choose you – which is in fact what a lot of writers do say, not least Winnie-the-Pooh:

‘They (the shillings) wanted to come in after the pounds, so I let them. It’s the way to write poetry, letting things come.’

https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/329034-they-wanted-to-come-in-after-the-pounds-explained-pooh

Of course lots of authors, mainly of the egoistical, entitled kind, pretend to be in charge of everything they write. I say bollocks. Hassocks to you, I say; that is totally not true. No writer is consciously in charge of everything they write, or if they are, what they write will be total cassocks. Things come to you. Yes, you choose what to write and what to leave out; yes, you are in charge of editing and organising the work. But you cannot and never will be able to control what comes to you and what does not come. That is the great mystery of art.

At this point I am reminded irresistibly of Will Self. I haven’t heard him say this but I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that he believes himself to be totally in control of his work. He packs his sentences with so many clever ideas that it’s rather like eating one of those disgusting Victorian roasts with one bird stuffed inside another. You just get a flavour of turkey when you realise there’s pheasant inside that and snipe to follow with just a hint of skylark to finish. It’s completely indigestible. There’s no joy in his work and very little instinct; it’s all ideas – clever, yes, but in my mind devoid of creative flow.

To some extent I sympathise. It’s not the easiest thing to admit to not being in control of your work; to some people it makes you sound weak or lazy – as if you’re waiting in a deckchair leafing through a magazine and waiting for inspiration to strike – though nothing could be further from the truth; the clear and focussed attention needed to allow creativity is anything but idleness. And it takes some humility to acknowledge that your best ideas come from the beyond: as JK Rowling said, ‘Harry Potter strolled fully-formed into my mind on a train.’ She was on her way from Manchester and by the time she got to London many of the characters had taken shape.

Now that’s my kind of inspiration. Some days all I get are tussocks. Or do I mean mattocks?

Balls.

Kirk out

Not Had a Bath for Twelve Hundred Years

One of the delights of living in Spain was its Arabic history. The Spanish language is mostly Latin-based and therefore easy to get along with, but about a third of the words derive from Arabic and are therefore (to me) unguessable. But it’s not only in the language that this heritage survives; it’s also in much of the architecture. You have only to go to Granada to see a magnificent rambling collection of spare Islamic architecture, all the more beautiful for being unadorned and all the more fascinating for the mathematical sequences contained in the decoration. The Arabs were – and probably are – great mathematicians and this is reflected in the art and architecture, the more so because depictions of the human form are haram, forbidden – and when you reach the cathedral which was built on top of the mosque, the Catholic kitsch seems sentimental and overdone beside the spare Islamic arches. There’s something dry and unsentimental about Islam, especially set side by side with the emotional outpourings of Catholic architecture. You can see something of the contrast in this picture:

Image result for Granada cathedral
expedia.com image removed on request

And now in Seville a hammam, or bathing place has been discovered lurking under a tapas bar. I may well have been in this bar at one time – it’s impossible to know – but this is a hugely interesting find and is the most completely decorated Arabic bathhouse in the whole Iberian peninsula.

Cross the Pyrenees and you don’t merely enter another country, you enter a whole new world. The cultural differences between France and Spain are far greater than between Britain and France, and the further south you travel, the more evident this becomes. Of course there were Romans in Spain as well as Britain but after they left our histories diverged dramatically and by the time Beowulf was being composed and England a collection of warring tribes, most of Spain was under Arabic rule. Al Andaluz – the country of light – was an organised kingdom comprising Jews and Christians as well as Arabs and although the two former groups were somewhat circumscribed they were generally able to get along together. The Arabs ruled Spain for 800 years and left behind buildings which, to my mind, are far more beautiful than the Christian architecture which supplanted them.

Kirk out

Cross Words

As you will know (if you’ve been paying attention) I do the Guardian cryptic crossword every morning. I’ve got better with practice and can usually spot an anagram at twenty paces, though expert compilers mix it up and have definitions pretending to be anagrams, or vice versa. But it’s come to my attention of late that I do have certain expectations about crosswords and that these plug in to a sense of fairness. I don’t mind a tough puzzle so long as it’s eventually doable, but a couple of crosswords have ruffled my feathers lately. There was a Prize one a couple of weeks back (no prizes are given at the moment, but unlike the daily cryptics there’s no ‘check’ or ‘reveal’ button) where you had to solve the clues first and then put them in the grid wherever they would go – to help you the clues were alphabetical so you had the first letter of each. I know this type of puzzle and I often enjoy them because to compensate for the difficulty of filling the grid, the clues are not too hard. But this particular one was very difficult; I got some clues but the two long ones which I really needed in order to begin filling the grid, eluded me; even when I looked them up I thought What? How the hell did they get that answer? To give you an idea the answer to one was ‘budgie-smugglers’ – the definition, ‘pants’, was not exactly made clear and that’s not a common expression to me either. So to my mind this puzzle was not playing the game as it didn’t really give me a chance.

Yesterday’s was a tribute to Araucaria, a stalwart of the crosswording world, who died a few years ago. I liked Araucaria and was always pleased if I managed to finish one of his. Araucaria is Latin for ‘monkey puzzle’ and so half the answers were on the theme of monkeys. I got the theme fairly early on, but could I finish the crossword? I could not: half the solutions were monkeys I’d never heard of. At this point I usually check the comments to see if others are struggling, and they were – lots of people saying they’d given up, that it was too obscure and no fun. I very rarely give up on a puzzle but I got annoyed with this one and in the end I too gave up. To give you an idea, the ones I didn’t know where sajou, kenken, saimiri, entellus, mangabey, colobus, wanderoo (wanderoo?) and sai. See what I mean? That’s eight new words in a grid of 32, a quarter of the answers – and the clues weren’t exactly easy either. To my mind that’s just not playing the game, so I commented that I’d found this too hard and given up, as did others.

Today the discussion has become, if not heated then gently warmed. One of the compilers (for there were two) was sad that some of us had given up, and others weighed in saying we shouldn’t expect things to be easy and that back in the day you had to sit with a dictionary to do a themed Araucaria. They may be right; so do we have different expectations today? I guess twenty years ago you would buy a paper, start the crossword on the way to work, come back to it at lunchtime and finish in the evening. But I usually finish the crossword before ten, when I start my blog post; it takes a great deal of discipline to leave some of it undone.

Then again perhaps it’s about performance. If I find a puzzle too hard I experience a creeping sense of inadequacy; rather than seeing it as a challenge to which I might rise, I see it as an indictment on my capabilities. This leads to impatience and a desire to find the answers. Nowadays we’re all about ticking boxes, not about sitting with something and cogitating on it.

I do make an exception for the Prize crossword though; we buy the actual newspaper on a Saturday and I sit down to tackle the grid with pen and paper. I think this is an entirely different process from filling it on the computer – akin to the difference between ebooks and paper books – and sometimes I take an entire weekend to mull over clues. Even so I can get a bit miffed if it comes to Sunday afternoon and I’m still – ahem! – clueless.

I daresay OH will comment now that all those types of monkey are perfectly common and ‘everyone knows them.’ We wait to see… anyway, here’s the puzzle if you want to give it a go. I’ve already given you a quarter of the answers – what are you waiting for?

Kirk out

Primed for a Shout-out.

I think it’s time for a shout-out to some new followers who have joined us since Christmas. A big Lizardyoga welcome to these new bloggers:

https://kreepykittysmurdermysteryblog.wordpress.com

https://pickmeuppoetry.org

https://allthespot.wordpress.com

https://puppiesandpooches.com

https://prissydavidsblogs.wordpress.com

and…

https://unclearer.com

Gosh, there’s so many of you I’m going to have to do this in two parts. Rest assured, if you’ve joined me since January I will give you a mention – except, of course, for those of you who are – or appear to be – selling something. There’s a quite staggering number of you out there but please don’t bother following me because I’m really not interested in investments or bitcoin or doubling my money (though I could try doubling my debt…) so it really isn’t worth your while.

But to those of you who are genuine bloggers or just readers interested in blogs, I send a heartfelt thanks. Without you it’s just me burbling to myself in a corner of the house, so I really appreciate you being there. And thanks again to those of you who take the time to like and comment – it really makes a difference.

In other news, my Anglo Saxon Primer has arrived. So today I shall be mostly grappling with strange vowels and weird consonant clusters, in between writing ideas for a new radio play – of which more anon.

Kirk out

Monday Greens

I’ve been learning some new words today, the first of which popped up in today’s Friday poem by Annie Freud (I can’t find a link to the poem but here’s the author) and the word is Mondegreen. OH will probably pop up in the comments and say I already knew this from a conversation years ago but if so I have forgotten it. As you probably already know, mondegreen defines a misheard song lyric which is better or at least funnier than the original: examples include ‘scuse me while I kiss this guy’, ‘just a bit of stockwater tea’ and ‘there’s a bathroom on the right’(from Purple Haze, Evita and Bad Moon Rising respectively.)

Trump has been learning some new words too. True, they don’t include the much-needed words ‘sorry’ or ‘concede’ but they are significant nonetheless. Late, inadequate, self-serving as it was, in his latest video he condemned the riots he himself incited without claiming responsibility for them, and acknowledged that there would be a peaceful transition without actually admitting defeat. Well, it’s not great but it’s something and hopefully now his supporters will stand down to allow that peaceful transition. Whatever his motives – and I imagine the threat to invoke article 25 and remove him from office will have concentrated his mind wonderfully – he has moved out of the way, at least for now. He seemed to signal that he would come back in 2024 but we’ll see. I think he’s dished himself but I may yet be proved wrong.

Another new word I’ve learnt today is apocalypse. Well I did already know this word of course but what I didn’t realise was that it doesn’t mean disaster so much as a massive upheaval, one which leads to a revelation. To put it in the words of Elizabeth Bishop:

The art of losing isn’t hard to master/ though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47536/one-art

So there are my new words for today. And on this auspicious Friday I invite you to practise the art of losing… Trump!

Joy!

Kirk out

PS Oh, and I nearly forgot – I’ve had a short story accepted by those wonderful people at Stand magazine. It’ll be out later in the year.

Let Me Splain it to You

Just in case you’re not familiar with the word mansplaining, it refers to the tendency of some men to inform women of what they already know. A good example is this, which happened to me a few months ago. I met a man at a Council of Faiths meeting and as soon as I told him I was a Quaker he proceeded to give me a run-down of Quaker history.

The starting point seems to be that we need to be kept informed and they are the man for the job. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that we might know this stuff already – that we might even be experts in our field – that, god forbid, we might actually be able to tell them something about it! No. They are like search engines picking up on a word and spewing out information on it. Except that I haven’t googled anything and I already have the information, thank you very much.

Of course as the definition above suggests, man– is not the only kind of –splaining. I may in the past have been guilty of whitesplaining, telling people of colour about their own culture or religion, though I hope not; there’s also ablesplaining, which I’m sure I don’t need to explain to you as you already get the idea.

Basically all types of splaining are about power relations. It’s about saying ‘I know more than you about this,’ even when it is blindingly obvious that the person concerned is living with whatever ‘this’ is and is therefore the definitive expert. It’s about positioning yourself above the other person, being the expert, the spokesperson.

So now I’ve explained this, you can stop bothering your pretty little heads about it…

Kirk out