Noh drama in London

Noh poster

Following my recent posts on contemporary Noh drama and transmission and change in Noh, and hot on the heels of relishing late Beethoven quartets, for a different vision of sublime mysteries I returned to the South Bank for a live performance of a new English-language Noh play at the Purcell Room. Do hurry (an unlikely word in this context!) to catch further dates on the tour here, with more in London, as well as Ireland and Paris.

Since the group can hardly recreate the elaborate Noh stage on tour, they’ve opted for a simple backdrop. But the performance, by the seasoned artists of Theatre Nohgaku with their long experience of creating Noh in English, was mesmerizing.

The evening opened with the auspicious final dance from the traditional drama Takasago, which I introduced in my first post, with the distinguished Akira Matsui embodying the God of Sumiyoshi.

Then came the world premiere of the English-language Noh drama Between the Stonesthe third collaboration between author Jannette Cheong and composer Richard Emmert. It explores how the burden of grief can be transformed through the healing power of the karesansui Zen rock garden. Attuned to the spirit of traditional Noh, the text is highly poetic. The programme’s libretto gives helpful clues to structure—shidai and issei entrance music, sageuta and ageuta low- and high-pitched song, mondo dialogue, and so on.

Ryoanji

In the midst of a typhoon, a grieving traveller (waki, Jubilith Moore) visits the rock garden at the Ryoanji temple in Kyoto. where she meets a woman gardener (shite, Kinue Oshima—the only professional female Noh actor in the Kita school). Understanding the traveller’s sadness, the gardener helps her appreciate the nurturing properties of the garden and how the art of raking the gravel enhances its beauty and evokes a peaceful soul. The gardener then vanishes.

In the interlude a temple priest (ai, Ashley Thorpe) appears, giving the traveller an introduction to the history and mystical significance of the garden. He then tells her that the woman gardener was an illusion, perhaps the spirit of the garden appearing to the traveller.

Act Two takes place some years later “on an island in the West”, where the traveller has now created a simple rock garden of her own. The woman gardener reappears and reveals herself as the garden’s Spirit of the Silent Waves. Along with the chorus, they evoke the pain of loss and the courage of those who face death—”as heavy as Mount Tai, or as light as a winter butterfly”. The Spirit of Winter Butterflies then emerges with the final dance, performed by 11-year old Iori Oshima—sixth generation in the Oshima lineage.

The hayashi ensemble—including two female performers—is entrancing as ever, with ethereal flute and haunting kakegoe cries from the three drummers. The international chorus plays a major role too.

Between the Stones makes a numinous addition to the growing repertoire of Noh in English. Here’s an excerpt from Pagoda, the first collaboration of Cheong and Emmert from 2009, a modern British–Chinese story pondering themes of identity and migration:

Late Beethoven quartets

Heilige

Through my teens, when I wasn’t listening to the Beatles or reading the Zen classics, I spent much of my time immersing myself in late Beethoven string quartets—almost a definition of “serious music”. And then I got to play them at Cambridge; but later (even before I read Susan McClary) I came to react against his cerebral style. Indeed, I’ve rarely heard a string quartet in live performance since the 1970s.

So after a long absence from these works, it was a suitably intense, immersive experience to hear the Salzburg-based Hagen quartet (no relation to Nina, alas) playing the A minor and C♯ minor quartets the other day at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. The three siblings in the group (Lukas, Veronika, and Clemens) have been musicking together since childhood; and Rainer Schmidt replaced a fourth sibling back in 1987. With such long experience their blend of sonority is wondrous; they have clearly thought a lot about vibrato, now using it sparingly—notably Schmidt in the unsung role of 2nd violin.

Whereas the orchestral life can be soul-destroying (see Mozart in the jungle), with as much drudge as ecstasy (and for jazzers too, square notions like health and security tend to get sacrificed in the quest for creative autonomy), from the outside, making a living from chamber music seems like an enviable life—particularly belonging to a string quartet. For the virtuoso soloist, the repertoire is narrower, and travelling solitary; for jobbing orchestral musos, chamber music may serve as a reminder of why they took up music in the first place. Still, only a minority of quartets achieve a reliable “food-bowl”—and even they can’t avoid the trying routine of airports, hotels, and promotions (for insights on the life of a string quartet, see under Quartets). And of course, such stellar groups are just the tip of the iceberg: there’s a rich repertoire for amateur combos to explore.

* * *

The extreme contrasts of Beethoven’s late quartets display the kind of splintered psyche that only became explored commonly in the 20th century. Besides Joseph Kerman’s classic The Beethoven quartets (1967), among myriad discussions of the A minor quartet, see here; it has been much analysed, not least by Susan McClary in Conventional wisdom. Indeed, it has been cited as a counterbalance on the importance of analysing any world music, such as aboriginal dream songs.

Like the Bach Air, the Adagietto of Mahler 5, or indeed Daoist hymns, the Heiliger Dankgesang (also the well-chosen name for PDQ Bach‘s co-commentator) is even more intense when heard live in the context of the whole work. Here’s the Hagen quartet’s 2005 recording (from this playlist):

Since then, to judge from the concert, they may further refined the purity of their timbre for this movement and others such as of the penultimate Adagio of the C♯ minor quartet, often sounding even more like a viol consort.

Going back to the 1930s, when the use of vibrato was in flux, the seminal recordings of the Busch quartet (at Abbey road!) from 1936–37, on the eve of devastating global warfare, are less sparing with vibrato:

And here the Heiliger Dankgesang is much more molto adagio too:

And here are the 2017 recordings by the Quatuor mosaïques on original instruments—in line with changing modern tastes:

And, as a bonus, nearly two centuries after its premiere (which Beethoven missed as he was down the pub) the Große Fuge (or “The grocer” as it’s known in the biz) is even more challenging and revolutionary—like The Rite of Spring, its aural bombardment is always a shock:

Anyway, with fresh ears, I found the Hagen quartet’s concert most inspiring. So much for the apogee of “serious music” in WAM: for the global picture, do click here.

To end on a lighter and typically unsuitable note, click here for the creative tribulations of the composer according to Monty Python, and here for their Beethoven LP (“The second tune, which Beethoven said on his arrest was “just a harmless bit of fun…”).

For Sama

Sama

Following on from Soviet lives at war, just in case you haven’t yet watched Waad al-Kateab’s moving 2019 documentary For Sama, then you must.

During the siege of Aleppo, Channel 4 regularly featured reports by both Waad and her doctor husband Hamza from the makeshift hospital where he received casualties of the constant bombings. For Waad, filming served as a means of both survival and resistance.

family

Dealing with a vast amount of footage, the editors’ eventual decision to structure the story through baby Sama was a fine discovery, “moving between dark and light, with Sama as their—and our—lifeline”.

Sama, will you remember Aleppo? Will you blame me for staying here? Or blame me for leaving now?

Amidst all the carnage, at their wedding they dance to Crazy. Their friends Afraa and Salem, and their children, are full of resilience and humour. Waad and Hamza question their resolve not only to bring Sama into the world but, after a brief visit to Turkey, to bring her back with them to Aleppo, ever more dangerous as the regime’s grip tightened.

Among all the media coverage, this is good, as well as this Channel 4 interview:

Note also their project Action for Sama.

Amidst such suffering, expressive culture may seem like a dream, but what will become of the fabled musical traditions of Aleppo?

More recently Channel 4 has broadcast a series of reports from beleaguered Idlib—and here’s an article by Waad al-Kateab on the desperate situation there.

See also Reviving culture: the Yazidis.

In memoriam Bruno Nettl

Nettl

The great ethnomusicologist Bruno Nettl (1930–2020) died last week. So far we have this tribute from Philip Bohmann, and I’ll add others as I find them. Here’s a brief appreciation from me.

A great inspiration, Nettl’s writings were accessible and engaging as well as wise, his perspectives always valuable. Alongside his rare overview of the global picture, he had a gift for explaining the nuts and bolts of musicking in particular societies—seting forth from his fieldwork among Native Americans, and in Iran and south India. His 1995 book Heartland excursions: ethnomusicological reflections on schools of music makes a fine complement to the ethnomusicological literature on WAM (see e.g. herehere, and here).

NettlPosts on this blog inspired by his insights include:


DO
read Nettl’s wonderful The study of ethnomusicology: thirty-three discussions—for anyone still not attuned to the importance of soundscape in society, in search of a mind-opening book, this is what we need!!! 

 

 

 

Doing fieldwork in China: a new book

The purpose of fieldwork is not simply to answer questions that have been incubated elsewhere. By learning what is important to people, fieldwork can be the source of the questions themselves. Talking to people, visiting a site, or experiencing a ritual are all irreplaceable ways of personally and viscerally understanding the processes that others have described in texts.

Fieldwork

The new volume

contains a wealth of stimulating articles on doing fieldwork in China—covering both urban and rural sites, with synchronic and diachronic approaches, and encompassing unofficial, oral history and local archives.

The editors provide a thoughtful preface, citing many further sources. As they observe, the articles have in common

first, a belief that ordinary people and distinct local cultures are worth understanding, both for their own sake, and as representing an important important perspective on sweeping trends of historical change; and second, a research method that prizes deep familiarity with a place, its physical contours, remnants from the past, and most notably its people, who often preserve not only memories, but also textual scripts, material objects, and oral and performative traditions.

While some chapters discuss issues of rapport and eliciting stories of people’s lives, for broad perspectives I’d still recommend Bruce Jackson’s Fieldwork (cf. this post). 

The twenty-four chapters are grouped under four sections:

History and fieldwork in historical perspective
This section includes

  • David Faure on the field research of Chinese intellectuals in the 1920s and 1930s, setting forth from their early work on the Miaofengshan temple fair, showing the problems they faced—and created;
  • Linda Grove on the rich 1940s’ Japanese field material on China (an important source for later studies of religious life in rural Hebei); and
  • Myron L. Cohen with pertinent thoughts on historical anthropology, focusing on the “traditionalist” phase in fieldwork on Taiwan from 1960 to 1980.

Left: route of 1956 fieldtrip to Hunan; right: fieldworkers in Hequ, Shanxi, 1953. For a roundup of posts on fieldwork on local ritual traditions under Maoism, see here.

Work reflections: fieldwork in the mirror,
Contributors here are

  • Michael Szonyi with lucid reflections on the importance of fieldwork for Ming historians;
  • Guan Yuxia on conducting fieldwork as a “local” in the multi-ethnic society of Hulunbuir, Inner Mongolia;
  • Kang Xiaofei, also pondering the complex tensions between emic and etic perspectives as she explores gender and ethnicity in the Sino-Tibetan borderland (“Who are they, and who am I?”);
  • Ma Jianxiong crosses disciplinary borders with fieldwork among the Lahu in Yunnan;
  • and in my own chapter I reflect on working with the ritual association of Gaoluo and the Li family Daoists, with vignettes that will be familiar to readers of this blog.

left: Guo Yuhua chatting with senior villager, Shaanbei;
right: household Daoists, amused by my notebook, relax between rituals.

Walking the ground, talking to people.
The first group of chapters here mainly concerns religion and ritual:

  • John Lagerwey on basic questions for fieldwork on pre-1949 Chinese society;
  • Paul R. Katz with a social-historical perspective on festivals in Taiwan;
  • Vincent Goossaert on doing historical-anthropological fieldwork in Jiangnan (“gazetteers, newspapers, and real life”); and
  • Ken Dean on incorporating historical GIS in fieldwork on the ritual culture of the Putian diaspora.

This section continues with

  • Ching May Bo and Liu Zhiwei taking an engaging walk through urban Guangzhou to reflect on doing historical anthropology;
  • He Xi on contextualizing ethnic classification among the Li of Hainan;
  • Micah S. Muscolino on the 1950s’ social and environmental history of conservation in a Shaanxi county;
  • Fang Xiaoping on medicine, health, and disease among the barefoot doctors of Hangzhou;
  • Dong Guoqiang on discovering the Cultural Revolution through oral history in Jiangsu; and
  • Thomas DuBois with an interdisciplinary approach to the “history of things”—production, commerce, and consumption.

Finding and working with grassroots documents.
While I focus on contemporary fieldwork, participant observation, and personal oral history, I’m always keen to find local written sources too. So I find these chapters insightful, showing the potential for delving in local archives. This section includes

  • Du Zhengzhen on legal archives of Longquan (Zhejiang) for the late Qing and early Republican eras;
  • Liu Yonghua on account books as sources for the local history of Huizhou;
  • Huang Sujuan on land and property deeds and urban studies for Guangzhou;
  • Rao Weixin on genealogies and revolution in the Jiangxi Soviet;
  • Liu Shigu on using local and Public Security Bureau archives for a Jiangxi county in the 1950s; and
  • Jan Kiely exploring the limitations and potential of an Intangible Cultural Heritage archive from a county in north Jiangsu. 

In all, the contributors to this new volume offer thoughtful reflections on diverse approaches to doing fieldwork in China.

 

 

 

Soviet lives at war

Svetlana Alexievich and the struggle over memory

in hiding

Continuing my belated education in Soviet lives, always bearing in mind parallels with modern Chinese society, I’ve begun reading the remarkable oral history projects of Svetlana Alexievich (b.1948), winner of the Nobel prize in 2015 (see e.g. this NYT review), starting with

  • The unwomanly face of war (1983, English translation 2017) (review here) and
  • Last witnesses: unchildlike stories (1985, English translation 2019) (review here).

Such memoirs should be read in conjunction with historical accounts such as Timothy Snyder’s The bloodlands. And they are just the kind of memories utilised by Orlando Figes in The Whisperers and documented on his website. For a roundup of posts on life behind the Iron Curtain, see here.

A genuine sense of collective idealism, so difficult for the Soviet state to instil through all the tribulations of forced collectivisation, famine, show trials, and gulags, only came much later with the Great Patriotic War unleashed by the 1941 Nazi invasion. But after the Victory this patriotic pride was soon followed by renewed disillusion. For the People’s Republic of China after 1949, conversely, the national myth fed on the whole process of the revolution, of which the wartime resistance against Japan was but one element. And then, as I observed in Lives in Stalin’s Russia,

Whereas the 1989 Soviet “liberation” occurred after over seventy years of repression, in China “reform and opening” not only happened earlier, following the collapse of Maoism in the late 1970s, but came after a mere thirty years of state repression. Both Russia and China suffered grievously under invasion and warfare; and for both, the hard-earned victory came to form a cornerstone of the national image. But whereas in China the war set the scene for the Communist takeover and the people finally “standing up”, in Russia it made an interlude within a system in which repression was already deeply entrenched; it seemed to offer hopes for reform, which were soon thwarted. In China too the lid on popular expression of trauma remained quite tightly sealed, though as Sebastian Veg notes, “after a period of post-traumatic outpour, followed by commodified nostalgia, popular memory in recent years has shown signs of moving towards more critical discussions.” But both Chinese and Russian regimes continue to devise new forms of repression.

* * *

In The unwomanly face of war Alexeivich focuses on the roles of women, their strivings and sufferings: tank drivers, snipers, sappers, pilots, nurses and doctors, on the front lines, on the home front, and in occupied territories; as well as the “second front”, all those women working backstage—doing laundry, cooking, repairing machinery and vehicles, and so on.

She also comments on the whole issue of representing war; on the process of eliciting such painful memories; and on the difficulties of publishing such material even after perestroika—notably in the lengthy opening section, “A human being is greater than war”.

I am writing a book about war…

I, who never liked to read military books, although in my childhood and youth this was the favourite reading of everybody. Of all my peers. And this is not surprising—we were the children of Victory. The children of the victors. What is the first thing I remember about the war? My childhood anguish amid the incomprehensible and frightening words. The war was remembered all the time: at school and at home, at weddings and christenings, at celebrations and wakes. Even in children’s conversations. […]

For us everything took its origin from that frightening and mysterious world. In our family my Ukrainian grandfather, my mother’s father, was killed at the front and is buried somewhere in Hungary, and my Belorussian grandmother, my father’s mother, was a partisan and died of typhus; two of her sons served in the army and were reported missing in the first months of the war; of three sons only one came back. My father. The Germans burned alive eleven distant relations with their children—some in a cottage, some in a village church. These things happened in every family. With everybody. […]

The village of my postwar childhood was a village of women. Village women. I don’t remember any men’s voices. That is how it has remained for me: stories of the war are told by women. Their songs are like weeping. […]

At school we were taught to love death. We wrote compositions about how we would love to die in the name of … We dreamed.

As a review comments:

The official response to this legacy of suffering was a Soviet history that reduced pain to superlative clichés —heroism, bravery, sacrifice—and replaced the individual with the archetype of the Soviet soldier-hero.

The “Holocaust by bullet” in the bloodlands, which bore the full brunt of Hitler’s invasion, were particularly horrendous—notably in Belarus, [1] where Alexeivich grew up; indeed, many of the accounts that she went on to collect refer to the Minsk region. Vasil Bykau’s novel The dead don’t hurt [aka The dead feel no pain] was published in 1965 but immediately banned: “his characters stubbornly stand outside the Soviet national myth. They are cowardly as often as they are brave; they betray and are betrayed; they are not always sure that victory over fascism or capitalism justifies their deaths” (from this review).

Eventually Alexeivich came across another book about wartime Belarus that struck a chord: I am from a burning village [aka Out of the fire, 1977] by Adamovich, Bryl, and Kolesnik. Impressed by the book’s polyphonic style, Alexeivich found it to be

composed from the voices of life itself, from what I had heard in childhood, from what can be heard now in the street, at home, in a café, on a bus. There! The circle was closed. I had found what I was looking for. I knew I would.

After another long struggle with the censors, Elem Klimov was finally able to begin shooting a film based on the book, Come and see (1985; review here). Here’s a trailer:

As Alexeivich read more widely, it became clear to her that the standard literature on war was “men writing about men”:

Men hide behind history, behind facts; war fascinates them as action and a conflict of ideas, of interests.

But

No one but me ever questioned my grandmother. My mother. Even those who were at the front say nothing. If they suddenly begin to remember, they don’t talk about the “women’s” war but about the “men’s”. They tune into the canon.

She reflects on the way women portray their wartime selves (memory too is a creative process), noting that educated people are more “infected by secondary knowledge”, by myths. She explains the process of finding the women and interacting with them.

The wartime recollections are disturbing, but the fortunes of the manuscript make another worrying topic. The 1983 manuscript of The unwomanly face of war was criticized for tarnishing the image of the Soviet woman.

The manuscript has been lying on my desk for a long time… For two years now I’ve been getting rejections from publishers.

Then came perestroika, and an edition appeared (albeit heavily censored), soon becoming hugely popular; as she received dozens of letters daily, she soon found herself “doomed to go on writing my books endlessly”.

In the unexpurgated 2017 English edition Alexeivich includes excerpts from her journal from 2002 to 2004:

I think that today I would probably ask different questions and hear different answers. And would write a different book—not entirely different, but still different.

She gives instances of passages that the censors threw out—and even that she herself had censored. Many of these have since been restored, but as she says, they too make a document. She intersperses such passages with her conversations with the censor:

“Who will go to fight after such books? You humiliate women with a primitive naturalism. Heroic women. You dethrone them. You make them into ordinary women, females. But our women are saints.”

Our heroism is sterile, it leaves no room for physiology or biology. It’s not believable. War tested not only the spirit but the body, too. The material shell.

“Where did you get such thoughts? Alien thoughts. Not Soviet. You laugh at those who lie in communal graves.”

Another exchange:

“Yes, we paid heavily for the Victory, but you should look for heroic examples. There are hundreds of them. And you show the filth of the war. The underwear. You make our Victory terrible… What is it you’re after?”

The truth.”

“You think the truth is what’s there in life. In the street. Under your feet. It’s such a low thing for you. Earthly. No, the truth is what we dream about. It’s how we want to be!”

Alexeivich laces the brief, distressing individual memoirs with revealing notes on the context of her encounters with their authors: their demeanour, the cramped apartments.

Amidst the frank descriptions of warfare, some of the women she met retained an enthusiasm for Communism, but others were bitterly critical of the society that Stalin had created. Here’s one letter she received:

My husband, a chevalier of the Order of Glory, got ten years in the labour camps after the war… That is how the Motherland met her heroes. The victors! He had written in a letter to a university friend that he had difficulty being proud of our victory—our own and other people’s land was covered with heaps of Russian corpses. Drowned in blood. He was immediately arrested… His epaulettes were torn off…

He came back from Kazakhstan after Stalin’s death… Sick. We have no children. I don’t need to remember the war. I’ve been at war all my life…

Another woman, whose husband had fought, was captured, and then sent to labour camp after Victory, reflects:

I want to ask: who is to blame that in the first months of the war millions of soldiers and officers were captured? I want to know… Who beheaded the army before the war, shooting and slandering the Red commanders—as German spies, as Japanese spies. […] I want… I can ask now… Where is my life? Our life? But I keep silent, and my husband keeps silent. We’re afraid even now. We’re frightened… And so we’ll die scared. Bitter and ashamed…

After one harrowing account from a former medical assistant of a tank battalion, Alexeivich adds a sequel. She received a package containing published praise for the woman’s patriotic educational work, and found the material she had sent heavily censored. Alexeivich reflects on the two truths that live in the same human being:

one’s own truth driven underground, and the common one, filled with the spirit of the time. The smell of the newspapers. The first was rarely able to resist the massive onslaught of the second.

On the interviews, she goes on to note:

The more listeners, the more passionless and sterile the account. To make it suit the stereotype.

One veteran explains how women were silenced after the war:

Back then we hid, didn’t even wear our medals. Men wore them, but not women. Men were victors, heroes, wooers, the war was theirs, but we were looked at with quite different eyes. […] I’ll tell you, they robbed us of the victory.

Alexeivich finds them less candid in speaking about love than about death. Indeed, traditional values remained punitive: one woman tells how she got married after Victory, only to find that her husband’s parents were ashamed of this frontline bride.

After the war we got another war. Also terrible. For some reason, men abandoned us. They didn’t shield us.

* * *

Woman’s history has rightly become a major topic, both in fiction and non-fiction. I’ve addressed women at war in Les Parisiennes and Bearing witness; there have been notable studies for Britain too, also providing a much-needed corrective to our legacy of patriotic war films. For China, the voices of women are an important aspect of Guo Yuhua’s study of a Shaanbei village under Maoism (see also my series on Women of Yanggao, starting here, and China: commemorating trauma). Among many posts under my fieldwork category, I explore issues such as listening to people here.

* * *

Whereas the narrators of The unwomanly face of war were at least in their teens when they joined the Great Patriotic War, in Last witnesses (first published in 1985, and again adapted for the English translation, which bears the dates 1978–2004) they are often recalling their very early years, aged from 3 to 14. Here Alexeivich refrains from comment, leaving the young voices to speak for themselves. “Instead of a Preface”, she cites People’s Friendship magazine to remind us:

In the course of the Great Patriotic War (1941–1945) millions of Soviet children died: Russians, Belorussians, Ukrainians, Jews, Tatars, Latvians, Gypsies, Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Armenians, Tadjiks…

The accounts make up a relentlessly grisly litany of partisans, atrocities, torched houses, mutilated corpses, transports, camps—an indelible trauma for these young children, often orphaned after witnessing their families and fellow-villagers murdered, hiding in forests and swamps, constantly hungry. However repressed, this trauma would persist throughout the years following the Victory.

 

[1] Belarus is a frequent topic of Snyder’s Bloodlands. As in Ukraine and elsewhere in the region, the war was never a simple struggle between the local population and German invaders. The NKVD had already committed terrible atrocities, complicating the partisans’ allegiances: some groups were pro-Soviet, others fighting for independence.

 

The c-word

also starring fatuous asterisks, bendy bananas, and the b-word (bi)

Lee

How is the poor reader expected to differentiate between b******* and b*******?

Talking of The end of the f***ing world, the prissy prurience of the tabloids’ use of asterisks is brilliantly demolished by David Marsh in this article from the fine Guardian series Mind your language, prompted by the John Terry trial—citing a reader:

 I never cease to be amazed by newspapers which shyly make him say “f***ing black c***”, leaving intact the one word which aroused Mr Ferdinand’s wrath,

and calling on the unlikely couple of Charlotte Brontë and Ken Loach. See also this LRB review of a book on a 1923 trial revolving around women’s use of “foul language”, class, and the uses and abuses of literacy—with a pre-echo of Paul Kratochvil’s splendid story in a quote from 1930: “soldiers used the word ‘fucking’ so often that it was merely a warning that ‘a noun is coming’ “.

Moreover, reclaiming “the c-word (cunt)” has been a concern of feminists—as discussed in this post (from another useful site), citing authors from Germaine Greer to Laurie Penny. See also this article from Rachel Braier; the wiki article is useful too.

In Stewart Lee‘s latest book March of the lemmings (2019—not aka The bumper book of  Stewart Lee jokes: jolly japes for all the family) he pursues the style of How I escaped my certain fate with typically expansive Teutonic footnotes to the script of his show Content provider [or should that be C***ent provider?]. In one of these, warming to several topics, he reflects on the efficacity of his “so-called comedy” with purposeful, insistent use of “the c-word (cunt)”—which I hereby feel obliged to emulate.

First we should hear him doing the live version that prompted this tirade, since it gains so much from his masterly inflection, timbre, timing, and delivery. See this charming little clip—or, with more context (from around 7.46):

And it isn’t, to be fair, you know, and I think—look, we’re gonna leave the EU, that is happening, and I think people have gotta put their differences behind them now and try and make it work. And I—I don’t know if you can make massive generalisations about people that voted to leave Europe anyway, because people voted to leave Europe for all sorts of different reasons, you know, and it wasn’t just racists that voted to leave Europe. Cunts did as well, didn’t they? Stupid fucking cunts. Racists, and cunts, and people with legitimate anxieties about ever-closer political ties to Europe.*

So here’s the footnote:

* How does this joke, which drew tears and cheers, even though I say it myself, night after night for the best part of two years, work? (1) Firstly, shock. I rarely swear on stage, and compared to most edgelord stand-ups, my swears count is probably only one level up from the sort of acts who market themselves as “clean” to get gigs at hospices run by born-again Christians. So it is a funny shock to hear me abandon my usual vocabulary and say the c-word (cunt). The c-word (cunt) is probably a way-too-heavy word to use here, and the deployment of such a disproportionately heavy weapon is part of what makes choosing to do [it] so funny. (2) The structure of the bit has a relationship with the much-touted idea that liberal Remainers should look outside their bubble and seek to understand the fears and concerns that drove 17.4 million people to vote Leave (“People voted to leave Europe for all sorts of different reasons, and it wasn’t just racists that voted to leave Europe…”), but then subverts the progression of thought by just calling them the c-word (cunts). To quote an old Lee and Herring routine, or possibly Viz’s Mr Logic, “Our expectations were subverted, from whence the humour arose”. (3) This second idea is then given what we in the trade call a “topper” by doubling back on the original premise and conceding that some Leave voters may also have “legitimate anxieties about ever-closer political ties to Europe”. There is then a second topper, in the form of a letter from a punter [“Dear Palace Theatre, Southend, please inform the “comedian”, and I use that word advisedly, Stewart Lee, who I had the misfortune of being taken along by friends to see last night, that I actually voted to leave Europe and I am neither a racist nor a cunt. Merely someone with genuine anxieties about ever-closer political ties to Europe. Yours, A. Cunt, Burnham-on-Crouch.”], which is a real letter (with the name changed) received during an early stage of the show at the 2016 Edinburgh Fringe try-outs, which just replays the joke again but in a funny voice and with more swearing, and with the town the complainer comes from changed to some local place every night—in this case, Burnham-on-Crouch.

By now the c-word (cunt) has long become a veritable mantra. The ever-expanding footnote goes on to do battle with Lee’s critics, with a plea for context:

The Tory Brexiteer and Sun columnist Tony Parson, in the February 2019 edition of GQ, the sort of style and status bible Patrick Bateman in American Psycho would read in between dismembering prostitutes in a penthouse apartment, wrote, on the subject of the c-word (cunt):

In the little corner of Essex where I grew up,”c***” was practically a punctuation mark among men and boys [see above—SJ]. It was in the foul air we breathed. But it grates now. It feels like the rancid tip of a cesspit that is the modern male attitude to women. And what I find bewildering is that it is not just thick ignorant oafs who use the c-word with such abandon. It is the woke. It is the enlightened. It is the professionally sensitive. It is the Guardian columnist, the BBC-approved comedian who can be guaranteed to dress to the left. “It wasn’t just racists that voted to leave Europe,” Stewart Lee recently quipped, “C***s did as well. Stupid fucking [sic!] c***s.” Does Lee’s use of the word sound rational or healthy? Does it provoke tears of mirth? Do you think it might persuade the 17.4m who voted to leave the European Union—the largest vote for anything in the history of this country—they were wrong? Some of my best friends are Remainers, but such spittle-flecked fury when using the word “c***s” makes Brexit sound like the very least of Lee’s problems.

Obviously, like Julia Hartley-Brewer and other Conservative Twitter types who alighted on the Brexit bit, Parson removed the qualifying section that followed it, where I acknowledge the out-of-touch nature of the so-called liberal elite in London, which in turn buys me some leeway, and also makes the subsequent attack on the so-called non-liberal non-elite more of a surprise; and Parson, presumably knowing little of my work, doesn’t appreciate that the use of the c-word (cunt) reads to my audience here in a comical way precisely because using it is so out of character. It is not the swear word in and of itself that brought the house down nightly. It has to have context.

And of course, the word isn’t delivered with “relish”, and it isn’t “spittle-flecked” either. The c-word (cunt) is delivered here with a kind of despairing calm, as if the cuntishness of the Brexit c-words (cunts) was just a sad matter of fact. When I was directing Richard Thomas’s Jerry Springer: the opera at the National Theatre in 2003 (as I am sure I have written before), we were given the benefit of the theatre’s voice coach for one session, who took the singers aside to teach them to enunciate all the libretto’s swear words and curses, to spit them out with relish. I waited for the session to subside, respectfully, and then had to unravel the work that had been done. The swear words weren’t necessarily to be sung in that spirit at all. For the most part, they represented the disenfranchised Americans working, in heightened emotional states, at the edges of the limited vocabulary that was available to them, and had to be used to convey not simply hate and venom, but also love, hope, despair and longing, the feelings expressed in Richard’s music. If I’d really wanted this particular c-word (cunt) to read with spittle-flecked relish, you’d have known about it. There’d have been spittle on the lens. I’m not averse to spitting on stage (on an imaginary Graham Norton, for example), so a lens would hold no terrors for me. To me, the c-word (cunt) here was mainly about how utter despair drove the beaten and frustrated Remainer character on stage (me) to the outer limits of his inarticulacy, painstakingly logical arguments against Brexit having broken down into mere swears.

And I didn’t “quip” the line either. One thing you will never see me doing is quipping. My work is too laborious and self-aware to ever include a comic device as light-hearted as a “quip”, and if I see one, I usually have it surgically removed from my script, or at least quarantined between ironic inverted commas (“Oh yeah, I can do jokes”). [Here’s a rare, and sadly very funny, example—SJ] And obviously, the bit was not in any way intended to “persuade the 17.4m who voted to leave the European Union—the largest vote for anything in the history of this country—they were wrong”, so it is stupid to criticise it for failing to achieve something it never set out to do. That’s like saying that Fawlty towers, for example, was written to encourage hoteliers to control their tempers; or that the very funny playground joke that ends with the line “Lemon entry, my dear Watson” was written to encourage Sherlock Holmes to keep suitable anal-sex lubricants close to hand for his congress with Watson, rather than relying on whatever out-of-date fruit preserves he could find in his larder.

Maybe I came onto Parson’s radar of late because I talked about Brexit, which he and his employer the Sun support, or because I am now one of those “cultural figures” that informed commentators like him are supposed to know about (“God! Haven’t you heard of Stewart Lee, Tony? I can’t believe it!”), who get praised in the London Review of Books, and get called the greatest living stand-ups in The Times, irrespective of their perceived market penetration or popularity. For Parson I am a “woke… enlightened… professionally sensitive… BBC-approved comedian who can be guaranteed to dress to the left”, which is hardly news, as it’s essentially what I describe myself as on stage, having done lazy Parson’s work for him.

Nonetheless, it’s odd to be called out as evidence of “the rancid tip of a cesspit that is the modern male attitude to women” in a magazine whose website has a “Hottest Woman of the Week” feature. It’s such an odd phrase, “the rancid tip of a cesspit”, that I had to go online and google pictures of cesspits to make sure I had understood what one was.

In my newspaper columns, I deliberately try to mangle my metaphors, writing in character as a man with imposter syndrome who is out of his depth in a posh newspaper and is trying to overcompensate with complex language that is beyond him. But Parson’s incoherence, as brilliantly parodied each month in Viz, is effortless. A cesspit is, literally, a pit full of cess. It can’t have a tip as it is not a conical solid. The only way a cesspit could have a tip is if it were somehow upended and its contents swiftly hardened in some kind of large-scale commercial drying unit, and the remaining cylinder or cuboid (depending on the shape of the pit that had moulded the cess within it) then sharpened at one end, perhaps using an enormous pencil sharpener rotated by shire horses on some kind of mill harness, or by Parson himself, until it formed the rancid tip Parson described. The only way a cesspit could have a natural tip would be if the body of the cesspit itself were conical, which perhaps they were “in the little corner of Essex where Parson grew up.

In fact, there is an Essex folk-song, collected by the archivist Shirley Collins inthe ’50s from the old traveller singer Gonad Bushell, that goes:

I’m a Billericay gypsy, Billericay is my home,
My house it is a caravan, my cesspit is a cone,
And if I want to see the cess become a rancid tip,
I tip the cesspit upside down, then dry and sharpen it!
And the curlew is a-calling in the morning.
[This is worthy of Stella Gibbons—e.g. Cold Comfort Farm, or her brilliant Britten pastiche—SJ]

Parson may have a point about the c-word (cunt), though I don’t really think my Brexit bit is hugely relevant to his discussion, and seems to be cranked in as part of some kind of twisted vengeance. Out of academic curiosity, I wondered what the dictionary definition of the c-word (cunt) was, and to my surprise, when I turned to it, there was just a massive picture of Tony Parson’s face. And it had all arrows pointing towards it as well.

Imagine writing the sort of space-filling shit Parson does, day after day. At least my columns are supposed to be stupid.

bendy

Back at the routine, Lee moves on ineluctably to the Brexiteers’ fatuous topos of bendy bananas (demolished e.g. here; also a theme of his columns, such as here and here, the latter included in March of the lemmings):

People did vote to leave Europe for all different sorts of—they did, don’t snigger away down there—they voted for all, you know, not everyone that voted to leave Europe wanted to see Britain immediately descend into being an unaccountable single-party state, exploiting people’s worst prejudices to maintain power indefinitely. Some people just wanted bendy bananas, didn’t they? “Oh no, I only wanted bendy bananas, and now there’s this chaotic inferno of hate.” “Oh well, never mind, at least the bananas are all bendy again, aren’t they?” Like they always fucking were.

In the second half of the show he adapts the Brexit material into an “I don’t know if you can make massive generalisations about Americans who voted for Trump…” routine:

Not all Americans who voted for Trump wanted to see America immediately descend into being an unaccountable single-party state, exploiting people’s worst prejudices to maintain power indefinitely. Some Americans just wanted to be allowed to wear their Ku Klux Klan outfits to church, didn’t they?

And still the footnotes to the script persist. Like How I escaped my certain fate, Lee’s comments are worth reading in full.

For more, see numerous posts under the Lee tag—and Ladies and gentlemen, Lenny Bruce!! For lying xenophobic misogynistic politicians, see also under Boris Piccaninny Watermelon Letterbox Johnson, with his sinister henchman The Haunted Pencil (e.g. here and here), as well as the Tweety tag. Click here for two erudite literary jokes; and for what in Chinese, charmingly, is “the b-word (bi)”, see Forms of addressInterpreting pinyin, and Changing language.