We have ways of making you talk

I have already mentioned my encounter with a stammering shawm player in Shaanbei.

As a stammerer, I’m all for a good stammering joke. Now as a limerick this is no big deal:

But sung as a round, in the fine melody to which it was set, it can be brilliant, with its syncops and manic pile-ups of unconnected final words.

I say can be… It sounds great sung in the gentle polished affectionate tones of my Oxbridge chums, one to a part. But for us stammerers, the regimented impersonal nature of such a rendition by a large school choir may seem mesmerizingly traumatic. One imagines poor stammering schoolkids cowering red-eyed with fear in the corner, their anxious parents in the audience. Anyway, let’s just imagine it sung kindly with humour… As usual, it’s all about context, and the intentions of performers and audiences.

It’s easy for you to say that, Steve…

It’s well known that stammerers can sing fluently—indeed, most can do silly voices too, although that’s hardly a long-term solution. I note too that stammering is predominantly male; and that it is also common in Japan, another highly pressurized island culture.

And further to the collation of Daoist texts, a note on textual variation: some versions open “There was an old man from Calcutta”. Stammering tends to decline with age. One wonders whether the old man was an expat, or native to Calcutta; if the latter, his fondness for dairy products may be merely an Raj-esque affectation, or else it may indicate a predilection for paneer and ghee—but that would scupper the p-p-poem.

For a more avant-garde take on stammering, see here.

“Stammer” or “stutter” is another instance of US/UK English variation.

You’ll be glad to know that our encyclopaedic resident publication The China Daily covers stammering too:

Feng Kezhi, a 24-year-old garage worker, suffered stammering so much that he once stood in the pouring rain and kept slapping his face but this didn’t cure him. It was Wang’s clinic that brought back his confidence. “There are many people like Feng who need a helping hand and I must try my best to help them”, Wang said.

China presents a fine challenge for stammerers like me.  When the English are confronted by a ferocious bout of stammering, polite embarrassed sympathetic reactions are de rigueur—immortalized by the finely-observed scene in A Fish called Wanda:

Conversely, the Chinese just tend to burst out laughing, a nice honest response.

What’s more, whereas in England we fiendishly covert stammerers can usually get away with limiting our conversations to one or two people, in China one is rarely in a group of less than a dozen; so short of feigning dumbness or unconsciousness, it’s not really possible to avoid public talking. It’s rather good shock therapy: “We have ways of making you talk”—which was of course the motto of the S-S-Stammering Association (hence also the name SS). Progress is only possible once one begins to stammer openly.

It’s good to hear Ed Balls talking (openly, and fluently) about his stammer:

He joins the ranks of distinguished stammerers like Moses, Demosthenes, Wittgenstein, Marilyn Monroe, and Kylie Minogue. There’s another fantasy dinner party, hosted by Michael Palin—a notable advocate for stammering, and the greatest ambassador anyone could ever have for anything.

The excellent British Stammering Association used to run a cartoon series called Stammering Stan, which was somewhat controversial. But this will be evocative for stammerers:

stammering stan

Li Manshan has a brilliant stammering joke, which he loves telling me—but it’s best if you hear him tell it himself…

The definitive transliteration

I just can’t resist constructing a headline to incorporate some of my favourite Chinese transliterations:

帅克耍耍圣桑的兔子不拉屎
Shuaike shuashua Shengsangde tuzibulashi

or

Conquering General plays with the Rabbits-don’t-shit of Sage Mulberry.

Or, if you insist,

Švejk plays with the toothbrush of Saint-Saëns.

What kind of language do you call that, ask the Plain People of Ireland. Beat that, China Daily.

Among several references to the toothbrush in The good soldier Švejk, try this:

Then she took out of the hamper three bottles of wine for the convalescent and two boxes of cigarettes. She set out everything elegantly on the empty bed next to Švejk’s, where she also put a beautifully bound book, Stories from the life of our Monarch, which had been written by the present meritorious chief editor of our official Czechoslovak Republic who doted on old Franz. Packets of chocolate with the same inscription, “Gott strafe England,” and again with pictures of the Austrian and German emperors, found their way to the bed. On the chocolate they were no longer clasping hands; each was acting on his own and turning his back to the other. There was a beautiful toothbrush with two rows of bristles and the inscription “Viribus unitis,” so that anyone who cleaned his teeth should remember Austria.

The latest research, however, suggests that Saint-Saëns (1835–1921) once carelessly left his toothbrush behind at his hotel while on tour in Prague—he was indeed a keen traveller, but his biographies are curiously silent about this incident. Later the Good Soldier came across it by chance while rummaging in a junk shop, and proceeded to toy with it.

Still, we cannot dismiss the possibility that the toothbrush may be employed here in its popular Slovakian metaphorical sense. In a comment suggestive of Molvania, Roberts (From Good King Wenceslas to the Good Soldier Švejk: A Dictionary of Czech Popular Culture) notes:

Slovácko is best-known for its traditional culture: distinctive national costumes are still occasionally worn, folk traditions like The Ride of the Kings [a major theme of Kundera’s The joke—SJ] still celebrated yearly. The largely rural residents of Slovácko are known as well for their love of slivovice, which they refer to as their morning toothbrush.

So have I been barking up the wrong tree? In this case, one wonders further: just what kind of liqueur was Saint-Saëns’ so-called “toothbrush”? In our headline, perhaps we may now interpret the verb shuashua “fooling around with” as referring to a tasting session—given Švejk’s Bacchic propensities, surely an epic event, at which Flann O’Brien would have been more than welcome.

Social survey

China’s prostitutes were better-trusted than its politicians and scientists, according to a 2009 online survey published by Insight China magazine. The survey found that 7.9% of respondents considered sex workers to be trustworthy, placing them third behind farmers and religious workers. “A list like this is at the same time surprising and embarrassing,” said an editorial in the state-run China Daily.

Politicians were far down the list, closer to scientists and teachers. Insight China polled 3,376 Chinese citizens in June and July this year. “The sex workers’ unexpected prominence on this list of honour… is indeed unusual,” said the China Daily editorial. “At least [the scientists and officials] have not slid into the least credible category which consists of real estate developers, secretaries, agents, entertainers and directors”, the editorial said. Soldiers came in fourth place.

Proof-reading

Another highlight from The China Daily was a full-page advertisement taken out by the whackily-named China National Arts and Crafts Import and Export Corporation Guangdong branch. A detailed report on the fine products on offer to a discerning international clientele should have been headed, simply, ‘Guangdong Arts and Crafts’. But when they sent it for checking, the English proof-reader found one phrase of the text less than elegant, circled it, and, in an empty space—unfortunately just to the right of the caption—wrote ‘an awful cliché’. Sure enough, the headline came out:

GUANGDONG ARTS AND CRAFTS AN AWFUL CLICHÉ