A personal lexicon

 

Here’s a little vocabulary to help those whom Myles calls “non-nationals” (like Euripides) negotiate some of my more elliptical allusions—arcane idées fixes in my idiosyncratic language, nay idiolect. Myles makes a suitable place to start, then:

To the divine Stella Gibbons I am indebted to

  • flapdoodle (usually in the context of heritage),

and to Monty Python the concept of

Tempted though I was to do these in the form of an index:

muse, Terpsichorean, delighting in all manifestations of 174,

I’m grouping them by themes.

  • S-S-Simon Rattle is a recurring theme of mine, referring to this story.

Several succinct allusions refer to Airplane:

As if that’s not enough, with the Li family Daoists I have come to share an even more arcane secret language of allusion, like “holding a meeting with Teacher Wang“, “Here’s 100 kuai!” and “Nin…”.

Such catch-words are hopefully more entertaining than some of those in vogue among anthropologists (see e.g Bourdieu’s habitus).

Alan Bennett points out the rich world of allusion in painting and film (see Visual culture, near the end):

The twentieth-century audience had only to see a stock character on the screen to know instinctively what moral luggage he or she was carrying, the past they had, the future they could expect. And this was after, if one includes the silent films, not more than thirty years of going to the pictures. In the sixteenth century the audience or congregation would have been going to the pictures for 500 years at least, so how much more instinctive and instantaneous would their responses have been, how readily and unthinkingly they would been able to decode their pictures—just as, as a not very precocious child of eight, I could decode mine.
And while it’s not yet true that the films of the thirties and forties would need decoding for a child of the present day, nevertheless that time may come; the period of settled morality and accepted beliefs which produced such films is as much over now as is the set of beliefs and assumptions that produced an allegory as complicated and difficult, for us at any rate, as Bronzino’s Allegory of Venus and Cupid.

So having gone to some lengths to try and understand the world-view of Chinese peasants, and liberated from the Lowest-Common-Denominator language of academia, I now feel emboldened to reflect my own, however arcane.

 

 

Love, Nina

Nina

Quite possibly a more plausible Christmas gift than my own books, Nina Stibbe’s Love, Nina: despatches from family life (2013) is hilarious, warm, and perceptive.

In letters to her sister she evokes her life after coming to London to work as nanny to the drôle Mary-Kay Wilmers (of the LRB) and her engaging and challenging kids, in leafy literary Gloucester Crescent in the 1980s.

Anyone taking it at face value may miss its genius. Forgive me if her original letters really had all the book’s subtleties of phrasing, but it seems to me that a lot of subtle mature editing was involved. Anyway, it’s an observational account of a niche tribe, full of linguistic delights—every page has a turn of phrase that leaves me helpless with laughter.

I apologize too for the things I got a bit wrong. Alan Bennett was never in Coronation Street for instance.

She doesn’t take her cultural education lying down:

PS Chaucer. Have you ever read it? Fuck. It’s a whole other language and meant to be hilarious, but it’s grim and annoying.

Later at the library:

… borrowed a recording of a bloke reading Chaucer in the Old English. Nearly wet myself listening.

And

Exams soon-ish. Here is a summary:
R&J: Romeo and Juliet hardly know each other, but they think they’re in love and both kill themselves. The nurse is an irresponsible idiot. The Friar is a moron. It’s a ludicrous story.
[…]
Winter’s Tale: King is mentally ill. Queen is a fool.
Chaucer: W of Bath is an unreliable old bag, but not a hypocrite. Marries for money but likes shagging, thinks women should be in charge.

 Another leitmotif is Nina’s grappling with the baffling poncey new cuisine that was coming into vogue.

Tarragon: the cookbook says tarragon is “misunderstood”. Not by me. I understand it. It’s horrible.

Later she comments,

It’s all pasta and couscous nowadays, in London anyway.

Further fine observation:

MK does the big shopping—a mixed blessing—she buys stuff without a plan (I think she copies other people who know what they’re doing). This is the kind of stuff that comes back [list abbreviated here—SJ]:
quark (German style liquid cheese)
rye bread with seeds
balsamic vinegar of Modena (black vinegar)
fresh lychees
spinach
Persil
olives
And other mysterious things that add up to nothing much when it comes to making meals. It’s like living in another country.

Which reminds me of Ian Rush’s (disappointingly spurious) comment on his struggle to adapt to Italian life during his one season at Juventus in 1987-88:

I couldn’t settle in Italy—it was like living in a foreign country.

Critics haven’t always appreciated what a fine comic creation is her stolidly mundane portrayal of their neighbour Alan Bennett.

Me: You’re good with appliances.
AB: (proud) Well, I don’t know about that.
Me: You sorted out the car, the fridge, the phone, bike tyres and now the washing machine.
AB: I don’t think I am particularly good.
MK: But it’s nice to know you’ve got something to fall back on.

Later:

AB not around. In Yorkshire or New York. I prefer him being around… God knows what he does in NY (if it is NY), can’t imagine him there, being shouted at by taxi drivers and prostitutes. Though his coat would work.

AB himself took issue with Stibbe’s portrayal of him as “solid, dependable and dull”; but while finding some “misrememberings”, he understood—as well he might—that “such is art”.

The TV version worked remarkably well too (like Cold comfort farm—I now realize the ingénue Nina has a distant affinity with confident Flora):

You can even brush up on your Italian with the subtitles.

As usual when watching, you just have to refrain from clinging onto your own image of the book.

* * *

I’ve only recently clocked the useful expression “Is that a thing?” (discussed here, and here), entertainingly used by the great Zoe Williams. A fine discussion on the ever-stimulating languagelog blog seems to date it only to 1995, though comments there hint at earlier variants. Since it makes some clear appearances in Love, Nina (assuming they’re not from a later edit), then we can take it back to the 1980s—e.g. p.132:

He picked up a raw burger and ate it. I was appalled but acted normal. Told MK later and she said it’s a thing (eating raw beef).

[another trademark of Stibbe’s style there—giving pedantic parentheses redundantly clarifying her previous comment].

Or p.136:

Mary-Kay has started wearing two shirts at once. I don’t know where she’s picked it up, but it’s a thing, apparently.

Indeed, I guess Love, Nina is basically about striving to define the rules of an alien culture to whose values one aspires—though I can’t be Saussure [cf. my Foucault pun under Visual culture].

 

Interpreting religious symbols

Alan Bennett’s 2011 diaries begin with typically drôle observations:

6 January. The alterations we have been having done are now pretty much finished, thanks to Max, a young Latvian who’s unsmiling but an excellent carpenter and Eugene, much jollier and from New Zealand who has supervised it all. Walking around the job this evening R. is shocked to discover in the bathroom above the bath a crudely made wooden cross. He takes this to be the work of Max who, scarcely out of his teens, already has two children and is, I imagine, Catholic. R., whose feelings about religion are more uncompromising than mine, finds the cross disturbing and is determined to ask Eugene to tell Max to take it down. I’m less exercised by it, seeing it as some sort of dedication, the sort of thing (though more crude) that a medieval workman would have put up at the completion of a job. We are both of us wrong as when Eugene is approached he explains it is not a cross at all but a makeshift coat hanger he has rigged up over the bath in order to dry his anorak.

And more comments on the behaviour of WAM musos:

 14 January. George Fenton tells me of a memorial service he’s been to at St Marylebone Parish Church for Maurice Murphy, the principal trumpet of the LSO, who did the opening solo in the music for Star Wars. The service due to kick off at eleven thirty, George arrives with ten minutes to spare only to find the church already full, the congregation seated, silent and expectant. It beings promptly at eleven thirty with everyone behaving impeccably and not a cough or a rustle throughout. And he realizes that it’s because they are all musicians and orchestral players for whom this is like any other concert and where the same rules apply.

It’s that man again

More from the diaries of Alan Bennett. I’m filing this 2009 entry under heritage:

23 August. […] I’m glad I’m not a theatregoer living in Elsinore. All they must ever get are productions of Hamlet, while what they’re probably longing for is Move Over, Mrs Markham or Run For Your Wife.

His keen eye for footballers’ physiognomy is in evidence again (2010):

7 April. The open mouth of Frank Lampard, having scored a goal, is also the howl on the face of the damned man in Michelangelo’s The Last Judgement.

This entry depends on a certain cultural knowledge that might challenge translators:

5 July. A child in Settle is said to have asked what the Mafia was and his grandfather said, “It’s like the Settle Rotary Club, only with guns.”

And he often shows his political involvement. When a speech in favour of the NHS from his early play Getting on is well received, he is encouraged to go on:

25 July, Yorkshire. […] whereas nowadays the state is a dirty word, for my generation the state was a saviour, delivering us out of poverty and want (and provincial boredom) and putting us on the road to a better life; the state saved my father’s life, my mother’s sanity and my own life too. “So when I hear politicians taking about pushing back the boundaries of the state I think”—only I’ve forgotten what it is I think so I just say: “I think… bollocks.” This, too, goes down well, though I’d normally end a performance on a more elegiac note.

Recording and editing

After our rendition of The Feuchtwang Variations à la chinoise at Stephan’s party—which surprised us as much as the guests, even without kazoo—we wanted to make a separate recording, but we had few illusions about how it could turn out. However modest our remit (it would be too ambitious to try and edit within movements, and we didn’t do too many takes), even the minimal editing that Rowan undertook was still a time-consuming process.

Typical exchange during rehearsal:

Me: Can you give me a lovely lingering arpeggio on that first chord, like a theorbo?
Rowan: No.

For me, it recalls all those orchestral recording sessions through the 80s and 90s—with section leaders crowding into the box to make notes and report back, doing endless retakes of a single chord, with the editor then taking months to compile a version that was a total fabrication. Of course, live recordings are far more satisfactory, if we can wean ourselves off glossy perfection—even then, we tended to do a couple of patching sessions after the concert.

It also reminds me of a comment from—you guessed it—Alan Bennett, in his 1990 diaries, on working with the Delme string quartet in recording the soundrack for his Proust film:

27 June. […] Striking about the musicians is their total absence of self-importance. They play a passage, listen to it back, then give each other notes, and run over sections again. George Fenton, who is coordinating the music, also chips in, but he’s a musician. David H., the director, chips in, but he isn’t a musician, just knows what atmosphere he wants at various points in the film. In the finish even I chip in, just because I know what I like. The musicians nod and listen, try out a few bars here and there, then settle down and have another go. Now one could never do this with actors. No actor would tolerate a fellow performer who ventured to comment on what he or she was doing—comment of that sort coming solely from the director, and even then it has to be carefully packaged and seasoned with plenty of love and appreciation.  Whereas these players, all of them first-class, seem happy to listen to the views of anyone if it results in them doing a better job.
[…] The readiness of players in a string quartet to absorb criticism from their colleagues has been noted by doctors, and the BMA video was made to be shown to businessmen as a model for them to emulate. Perhaps it should be shown to Mrs Thatcher.

Such humility is a trait that musicians might not recognise in themselves; anyway, AB was lucky to work with a quartet, as orchestral recording sessions are (inevitably) far more hierarchical, with a clear pecking order (giving rise to maestro-baiting). Still, the contrast with actors (and politicians) rings true.

Performance ethnography

Pace Robert Hanks and indeed the great man himself, one can never have too much of Alan Bennett.

From his 2008 diaries, more perceptive ethnography of both orchestral musicians and audiences (cf. here and here), about a TV broadcast of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra from the Proms:

… one of the cameras fascinated with a particular woodwind player who has a good deal to do, but who in turn obviously fancies the flautist who’s next but one. So at the end of his own contribution he’ll often half-turn in order to pass the tune or whatever to this flautist, and she is equally attentive during his solos. There’s a cellist with a cheeky face who plainly makes jokes, a bear of a violinist who throw himself about a lot, and next to him the child violinist with a face made tragic by concentration. It’s hard to conceive how such a small figure copes with the great winds of Brahms, though he’s more composed about it than his hairy and demonstrative neighbour.

It’s moving, too, of course because of the moral stance of the orchestra, though the players are by now probably bored or at least matter-of-fact about this ethical burden. But with similar experience in the theatre (including I hope The History Boys), one longs to stay with them once the performance is over and they disperse. Who looks after the child, I wonder, whom does the cheeky cellist sleep with and are the flautist and the woodwind player as close as their performances suggest? So there’s sadness too in being excluded from all this and longing, just as there is coming away from the theatre or for some people, I imagine, the football stadium.

Competing with the lofty claim of detached spiritual contemplation of the work in hand, such observation is a universal yet little-documented feature of attending public performances—just the kind of detail that ethnomusicologists might seek, and that the “absolute music” wing of WAM scholars would eschew.

My work with the Li family Daoists is full of such detail, both for their funeral practice at home—such as Golden Noble corpsing the others while reciting the Invitation memorial, or the reluctance of the kin to pay attention to the liturgy of the Daoists they still feel obliged to hire—and for their concerts on tour (such as this, and this). But even in the 1990s I had apparently read enough Geertz, Barley, and so on to pay attention to the behaviour of the Gaoluo villagers—like this passage (Plucking the winds, pp.304–5):

After supper on the 15th, the “temple” courtyard is packed. Apart from South Gaoluo villagers, some have also come from the North village and elsewhere. Many have come to offer incense, but many also just for the fun. Boisterous children are chasing around letting off firecrackers, both outside and inside the “temple”. Five sticks of incense are considered “a bundle” (yifeng).

As to ordinary villagers, though there are more women than men offering incense, quite few of the people are elderly: young and middle-aged women and young men seem to be more active in this. Many pray silently to the goddess Houtu for a healthy son, or for the health of their aged parents; more generally, people pray for good luck and prosperity. One couple were offering incense for the safety of the husband, who is a driver—even for the most diehard atheist, recourse to divine help is particularly tempting on Chinese roads. The atmosphere is highly jocular as people enter the courtyard. As they go to offer incense and kowtow they look embarrassed, but then when they are actually doing it they become extremely serious. Then as they get up and dust down their trousers, they look all embarrassed again, and, avoiding meeting the gaze of all the onlookers, they leave the area, often going into the “temple”.

Of course, Geertz, Barley, and indeed Bennett may do it better, but as with WAM, such social ethnography is quite rare in (both Chinese and foreign) studies of Daoist ritual, which are more concerned with recreating the abstract deep structure of medieval texts and ritual sequences. And similarly, it’s not one or the other—both angles are desirable.

* * *

Later in 2008 AB notes a comment on the distressingly populist Classic FM radio:

Elgar’s Nimrod conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. It doesn’t get much better than that. Or does it? Give us a call.

More Ted Ibert


Always a keen ethnographer of religion, Alan Bennett documents the ritual paraphernalia of calendrical observancess in a diary entry for 2007:

17 May. Outside the bank I see the local vicar, his arms full of balloons and a Sooty teddy bear in the crook of his arm. “It’s Ascension Day,” he explains.

Pursuing the teddy bear theme, AB reflects on his own innocuous image:

20 December. […] I shall still be thought to be kindly, cosy, and essentially harmless. I am in the pigeon-hole marked “no threat”, and did I stab Judy Dench with a pitchfork I should still be a teddy bear.