I have the greatest admiration for people who learn to manage their speech impediment to speak in public. Not among them is Bumbling Boris (for his full title, see Stewart Lee—since “Boris” and “BoJo” seem too generous in their familiarity, Lee’s solution “Turds” seems suitable; “Spaffer” also has a certain ring to it).
Along with the tousled hair and shambling walk, his disjointed speech—seeking to convey a spontaneous happy-go-lucky image, making it up as he goes along—seems a public-school affectation. Mystifyingly, in some quarters this is apparently considered attractive, like Hugh Grant’s “Posh Twat” persona, or Jacob Tree-Frog eternally trapped in the ridiculous fancy-dress outfit that he once wore for a laugh at a school party.
Or is his stumbling a recognition that if he does somehow manage to string more than two words together consecutively, the result will inevitably consist of fatuous offensive clichés, or is it a cunning attempt to dissociate himself from them?
Er er er, bumble wumble, ow-ow-our [smirks] European friends [the AfD], the-the-the…, um, ipso facto [smugly], I-I-I, letterbox, i-i-s a… er, world-beating [Ha], um, roadmap, blah, [ruffles hair “endearingly”], Winston, er er… (what was his name again?) pifflepafflewifflewaffle steady ship… um, um um, cavalry…
Here’s a real one:
In his distinctive shtick, I don’t think I’ve heard him stammer on initial consonants, only repeating whole monosyllables (the), often vowel sounds (I) (see also under stammering tag).
Well he said, you’ll be the greatest president in the history of, but you know what, I’ll take that also, but that you could be. But he said, will be the greatest president but I would also accept the other. In other words, if you do your job, but I accept that. Then I watched him interviewed and it was like he never even was here. It’s incredible. I watched him interviewed a week later and it’s like he was never in my office. And you can even say that.
Or perhaps the difference is that Tweety blundered on relentlessly [enjoy that past tense], whereas Spaffer peppers his own drivel with cute hesitancy. So much for oratory (and for fluent impromptu exposition in Indian raga, see here).
Created at a time when the idea of either of them being allowed anywhere near power seemed utterly ludicrous,
Paul Whitehouse’s character of Rowley Birkin QC combined the posh Spaffer mannerisms and the relentless Tweety gibberish:
Here’s Matt Lucas:
Recently a Spaffer–Birkin hybrid has emerged:
I might have a greater tolerance of such eccentricity for a politician not wallowing in a cesspit of opportunism, xenophobia, and duplicity. For a less-than-ringing endorsement from a former colleague (“a clown, a self-centred ego, an embarrassing buffoon, with an untidy mind and sub-zero diplomatic judgment”), see here.
“What I can tell you is this“: on behalf of the, um, stammering “community”, I would like to dissociate myself from this kind of flummery—FFS, either get a proper speech impediment or just learn to engage mouth with “brain”. Ideally, go away.
The potato is central to the structuring of musical expression.
—Henry Stobart (To be fair, he wasn’t claiming this as a universal of human musicking. Cf. The life of Brian sermon: ““Blessed are the cheesemakers”— “Well, obviously, this is not meant to be taken literally. It refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.”)
Being highly partial to a good potato, I’m well up for an article on its relation with music.
Henry Stobart,“Flourishing horns and enchanted tubers: music and potatoes in highland Bolivia”, British journal of ethnomusicology 1994.3,
makes a tasty hors d’ouevre for his 2006 book Music and the poetics of production in the Bolivian Andes; note also his Introduction to The new (ethno)musicologies(2008)—a volume that includes many thoughtful chapters, such as those of Michelle Bigenho. and Nicole Beaudry. For me, Stobart’s discussion of a rural Andean hamlet marks a rare excursion to south America.
Music is not the universal language that many people have often claimed it to be. This does not prevent us from deriving great pleasure and inspiration from the musics of other cultures, but the structural principles, aesthetics, and perceptual bases of our appreciation are likely to be radically different from those of the performers themselves.
In another instance of the exclusive, culturally-based meanings of the term “music”, the Spanish word musica is used to refer to either urban brass bands or sometimes sikura panpipe ensembles. As conversations veer off into agriculture, he learns that performance revolves around cycles of agricultural production.
Flutes and guitars, or panpipes, are played for rainy and dry seasons in turn. The wooden pinkillu flutes, considered “alive”, with their “eyes”, are strongly associated with the potato, whereas the panpipes of the dry season, lacking fingerholes, are unable to regenerate. The flutes are “enclosed” by women in the qhata circle dance, and released at Carnival preceding the dry season.
As Stobart notes, “the lives of humans and potatoes overlap and are sometimes compared with one another”. Instruments are considered to “weep”. The pinkillu is also associated with the sirinus, demonic and enchanting beings, who are said to provide players with new melodies between the feasts of San Sebastian and Carnival. The flutes are then hidden away until the following November—which according to a recent survey in The Strad was also voted one of the “best possible things you can do with a viola“, among other popular items covering the entire annual cycle.
For my hosts the potato is no mundane staple, but is an enchanting and magical being whose life is seen in many ways to parallel and enable their own. Potatoes must be loved and cared for, just like human children. This sentiment is expressed through music, song, poetry, and dance which in turn are some of the ultimate expressions of human feeling. For the people of this highland hamlet, it would seem that the potato must count among the most important organising principles of musical performance. Or rather, might it be more accurate to say that music is one of the primary expressions of the potato?
As one often finds, this cyclical relation between agriculture and performance is being impoverished by migration and changing patterns of labour. But this account makes a welcome antidote to all those (alas, perennial) panpipe bands that clog high streets worldwide, bless their alpaca socks.
For more, see The history and social influence of the potato. Though “Daoist ritual and the potato” is a yet-unploughed field, for some reason I always think of Li Manshan when I’m peeling potatoes at home in Chiswick—which I do remarkably often, if impressionistically. While potatoes (shanyao 山药 or yangyu 洋芋 rather than standard tudou 土豆) feature rather sparingly in the local cuisine, which (as generally in north China) is based on noodles, he has a cool underground store in his courtyard, occasionally using a wicker basket to dredge up some potatoes for his wife to incorporate into various succulent recipes. For Li Manshan’s relationship with the earth, see my film, from 6.20.
“Flourishing horns and enchanted tubers” belongs to Stobart’s early career. In a fine recent update,
“Potato music revisited and the rise of a worldly music studies: perspectives from the UK”, in Gerd Grupe (ed.), Recent trends and new directions in ethnomusicology: a European perspective on ethnomusicology in the 21st century (2019),
he puts it in a wider context, reflecting wisely on the changing scene in UK musicology, as WAM scholars have fought a rearguard action against the growing trend for studies of folk and popular music, jazz, and film music.
On his early article, he notes that if he had written it a decade later,
it would probably have included explicit references to (post)colonialism, modernity, class, race, politics, violence, gender issues, migration, or new technologies; themes, among many others, that I would go on to explore in subsequent work.
But that’s not the main issue he needs to address here. Like other ethnomusicologists, Stobart is eminently sympathetic to the study and practice of WAM. Conversely, as Bruno Nettl already observed over half a century ago, the WAMmies are anxious about the perceived threat to their status (a regular theme of my blog, e.g. under Musicking, and What is serious music?!), fearing that “the ethnos are taking over”. So Stobart’s chapter is mainly a careful, equanimous response to belated, misleadingly simplistic critiques by J.P.E. Harper-Scott and Ian Pace.
Is Harper-Scott suggesting that by glancing beyond, what he calls, a “Eurocentric focus on Beethoven” and asking bigger questions, students’ minds might somehow become contaminated? Alternatively, is he worried about the legitimacy of what he studies and teaches, where we might interpret his attack as an attempt to shore up this music’s value though negative assessment of others? […] The ‘noble savage’-style “essential authenticity” Harper-Scott reads into the article is largely a product of his own imagination.
According to Harper-Scott, I should be berated for failing to condemn these Bolivian potato farmers for their misogyny and pro-natalist attitudes from a universal moral position. Quite how he manages to read the text , and interpret the symbolism of this dance, as evidence of these people’s misogyny is hard to fathom. […]
Of course, a global economic order which enables certain populations to live in poverty is immensely troubling. As Harper-Scott would know if he read my 2006 book, I am painfully aware that the musical expressions I have documented in this rural community have been maintained in large part because of the precariousness of people’s lives. However, it is hard not to be annoyed by the dismissive way in which Harper-Scott seems to propose that, rather than listening to these people and trying to understand their values and way of life, I heroically barge in with scientific knowledge to miraculously bring them out of poverty.
That’s just a taster—do seek out the whole article, as well as reading Music and the poetics of production in the Bolivian Andes!
While Bach did reflect exotic imports with his Coffee Cantata, a Potato Cantata has not come to light. Indeed, potatoes were not grown as a field crop in Germany until the 1770s; considering the malnutrition from which Bach’s ancestors suffered, John Eliot Gardiner (Music in the castle of heaven, pp.23–4) laments that “they had no access to the common spud”.
Blurry 1986 polaroid Four Pissed Mates On the Razz Staggering Out of a Stretch Limo in Pink Sombreros After a Karaoke Night fetches 99p at a car boot sale
Just like the elegant calligraphy of the colophons with the scroll, the photo is adorned with scrawlings in marker-pen of a Hitler moustache and Sundry Ribald Appendages [popular beat combo—Ed.], further enhancing its market value.
First I warm up by seeing how much I can still recall of the movements of Bach cello suites that I learned some years ago—a remarkable amount, as it turns out (speaking as someone who doesn’t even know what day of the week it is at the moment). Then I devoutly set about learning the intense Sarabande from Bach’s 5th cello suite, inspired as I am by the great Steven Isserlis (for his rendition of the complete suite, click here; the Sarabande from 13.12).
Short as it looks on the page, this should be a manageable task, though here the usual challenge of transposing from cello to violin—the preliminary spadework—is further complicated both by its highly chromatic melodic lines and by the score, with its scordatura, the E string tuned down to D. The ear is the best guide: once the piece is in my heart and under my fingers, I can dispense with the notation (as one does). Playing it on the modern violin (I don’t quite know why), I soon adopt higher, more veiled positions; so in the end, ironically, I don’t require the top string at all.
Steven imagines the 5th suite as representing the Crucifixion—before the Resurrection of the 6th suite. As he writes:
The tragic atmosphere of the suite reaches its emotional peak in the desolate loneliness of the famous Sarabande. What an extraordinary movement this is: no discernible melody as such, no particular rhythmic interest, no obvious dynamic changes, no chords*—and yet, one of the most powerful pieces of music ever composed.
To irritate Tweety McTangerine (cf. They come over ‘ere…), I note that the Sarabande was Latin in origin, with Arab influences; like many dances, it was once considered “so loose in its words and so ugly in its motions that it is enough to excite bad emotions in even very decent people”. This one may seem remote from its dance ancestry (it’s hardly a track to get the kids onto the dance floor), but I find myself trying to convey a stately balletic rhythm alongside the anguish.
And now even the other movements aren’t safe: next, the Allemande. This beats household chores and gardening any day.
While I’d love to hear the Sarabande on the Uyghur satar (cf. the exquisite muqaddimehere), I’m also rising to the challenge of making it work on the ethereal Chinese erhu, like the Feuchtwang variations and the Allemande for flute. This requires yet more vertiginous positions. “They said it couldn’t be done—and they were right!”
Irony is far from dead (and hasn’t even been resting)—as two striking recent headlines from the Guardian confirm:
Boris Johnson to warn public to “act responsibly”
Few will welcome this any more than his parenting advice (here, along with “common sense”, another stick with which to beat the plebs). Meanwhile Priti Patel still won’t move on from the fatuous, damaging clichés of “the brightest and best” and “taking back control“.
Critics say Russian vote that could allow Putin to rule until 2036 was rigged
Anyway, following the recent moratorium (welcome to many, no doubt), as sport furtively reappears like a cockroach from behind the fridge, here’s a little roundup of some highlights from the sport tag—not least, connections with ritual, and with feminism.
Snooker—starting with 5’20” of inspired fluency from the great Ronnie:
In a bold gambit, Jacob Tree-Frog (aka The Haunted Pencil / Minister for the 18th Century)* has thrown his top-hat into the ring with the yet-unverified claim (delivered in impeccable Latin) that Nanny once gave him a mug of Ribena to snort at a party.
It should be read in a strong Lancashire accent. The opening line (for a variant, note comments below!) would be a headline, rather in the style of “Ping-pong ding-dong“. And the “rhyme that doesn’t quite work” doubtless has one of those fancy names that they try and teach you in school:
Trouble at t’Morris ‘As PC gone mad? Ey-up— T’Nutters of Bacup!
For Stewart Lee’s trenchant rebuke of “PC gone mad gone mad”, see here; and for “Ey-up!” in Venice, here,
“The thing to do is as follows. First, Issue a Reward. Then—”
“Just a moment,” said Pooh, holding up his paw. “What do we do to this—what were you saying? You sneezed just as you were going to tell me.”
“I didn’t sneeze.”
“Yes, you did, Owl.”
“What I said was. ‘First Issue a Reward’.”
“You’re doing it again!” said Pooh, sadly.
With all due respect to A.A. Milne (“the true voice of England in the 1930s”, as Alan Bennett notes), the exchange would work better if Owl had said “The question at issue…” But hey.
In Polish Winnie the Pooh is Kubus Puchatek, in Norwegian Ole Brumm—names to conjure with. In Italian he is Uini Puh, though I like the 1936 version Ninni Puf; Piglet is Pimpi, and Eeyore Ih-Oh (for more, see here).
Winnie the Pooh was one of the first to be subjected to the “Tao of…” franchise (and one thinks—doesn’t one—of the 4th-century Baopuzi抱朴子 Master Who Embraces Simplicity). And for incurable classicists, there’s Winnie Ille Pu:
“Res exsequenda id est: praemium promittimus.”
“Paulisper subsiste,” dixit Pu ungulam sublevans. “Quid faciamus? Quid dixisti? Loquendo enim sternuisti.”
“Habe me, Pu, excusatum, minime sternui. Nequimus inscüs nobis sternuere.”
“Optime audivi: prr–prr!”
“Dixi: praemium promittimus.”
On a musical note, for a classic recording, click here.
I have a Chinese friend whose online handle is Aqu—although for sneezing in various languages, see here. Note also Lithuanian Ačiū, “thankyou”.
Some other pleasantly fatuous comments that I can still never resist:
when someone trips up, I just have to say “Enjoy your trip?”
Call me irreverent (cf. The sermon, and We are miserable sinners), but Jesus jokes can be entertaining. There’s a plethora of websites, so here I’ll stick to some of my more niche favourites. Even last-supper jokes are a whole sub-genre—here’s an audio variant:
Apart from his brilliant anagram tales (starting here), my talented friend Nick, living in Lisbon, has a nice little number going with football reports featuring Jesus, coach of Sporting (as the team is ingenuously called). Among pithy headlines that Nick has spotted are
Jesus pays homage to his Father
and the brilliant
Jesus is very happy with his eleven
(Judas clearly relegated to the bench there—hinting he wants a transfer).
Despite his health travails, Nick has managed to update me. Receiving a head-butt à laZidane,
Such is the warm British welcome for foreigners [onlyjoking] that we can play this game too. Moving onto the Brazil forward, I enjoyed this Guardian headline** that appeared but briefly online—all the more apt since it was Holy week:
Jesus restores some pride after thrashing
When he took a penalty for Man City against Burnley goalkeeper Nick Pope:
And he always has a fantastic body, shown at its best on the cross, which—face it—was practically designed to make a man’s stomach and shoulders look good.
Not to be outdone, Beatrice Dalle is available for seminars on the history of religion:
I love Christ because he invented bondage.
No trawl through the archives would be complete without Family guy, where Jesus is a regular Special Guest Star, such as:
I must confess [sic] that there are already several related posts on this blog—Chumleys vinegar, more from Alan Bennett (WWJD, feet, and the Christmas card), the Matthew Passion incident, and so on. If you consult the latter post, we can all end with a resounding chorus of Always look on the bright side of life. For “blasphemy”, see also Patricia Lockwood.
In my defence, Daoist jokes are also a niche source of entertainment, like the train deity (also featuring Moses) or the “switch off the light” story. [Call that a defence?—Ed.]
In this, the second of a yin-yang pair of articles that might be entitled
Uncle Xi and the Ten Kings of the Underworld,
I find myself seeking to qualify the current coverage in the foreign media. The casual reader might be forgiven for supposing Chinese people to be languishing under a bombardment of Uncle Xi propaganda, just as we are abroad at the hands of China-watchers—in very different ways.
I don’t doubt that in some spheres this latest catechism is indeed intrusive. But the impression I get is that Chinese (peasants, workers, artists, students, academics…) have far more important things to do than study Xi Jinping Thought. I found public images of him rare—and if some households do display his poster, then there’s a sound pragmatic reason.
Shanghai, 2018: images that I barely saw in nearly a month in Shanxi and Beijing. Photo: ABC.
Invisible propaganda: business as usual Of course no-one ever mentions him. On the few occasions that I broach the subject, it goes down like a one-legged man at an arse-kicking party. Following Nigel Barley (“like a vicar hoping to get a current affairs discussion going at a youth club”), I ask Li Manshan innocently, “Have you been studying Xi Jinping Thought?!” Without exactly rolling his eyes (unlike this reporter), he looks at me like I’m crazy—not for the first or last time.
In the poor rural county through which I’ve just been travelling, Xi Jinping posters were distributed to every household—with the offer (akin to a bribe) of sacks of flour, meat, and so on. In one village I know, around 80% have taken the bait. Poor-peasant families will likely play ball (like a rural Protestant woman we met, and a “left-over” family in a dying village).
A household Daoist, and a shawm player—both struggling to make ends meet—have also put their poster up. Another Daoist, my age, put his up gladly, but he’s not that well-off—and anyway he still reveres Chairman Mao, which his colleagues agree is weird. As we chat between ritual visits to the soul hall, I can’t even be bothered to ask him, “If Chairman Mao was so great, how come he let 45 million starve to death? How come you couldn’t even get a proper meal until the 1980s? How come he wouldn’t let you guys do rituals?”
But most of my village friends don’t need the supplement, so have refrained from putting up their posters. Thus I saw very few of them, either in the countryside or in the capital.  (Having just received a rather indecent gas bill, I wonder if I can ask for a poster from the county Propaganda Department to hang up in my house in Chiswick—if they can put bonus points on my Nectar card…)
Only now does it occur to me that there should be a strong correlation between households displaying the posters and those too poor to invite the whole ritual band to perform a complete sequence of funerary rituals, who instead request a solo Daoist merely to “smash the bowl” for them.
So my feeling is that for villagers, this is just yet the latest in a long line of gods who may or may not address their practical problems. Campaigns are water off a duck’s back for them:
The mountains are high, the emperor is distant Shan gao, huangdi yuan 山高皇帝远
There may be various reasons for choosing whether or not to hang a poster up. Villagers might feel that their room needs a splash of colour; or else it might not go with their colour scheme. No, aesthetic considerations are unlikely: some households may be genuinely enthusiastic, while most will swallow their scruples in order to get a supplement. At least, we can’t assess popular support for Uncle Xi merely by counting the number of posters displayed.
Nor did I see any painted wall slogans to him as we walked and drove through the villages, or as we drove through townships and the county-town. Does the local government know something we don’t? Do I need a repeat visit to the optician?
Come to think of it, is it some extraordinary quirk of my routes through Beijing, or is there a remarkable absence of his images in public places there too? Has anyone covered this?
A common sign. Strangely missing is the request: “With the exception of patriotism, if anyone spots an outbreak of any of the above diseases, please report them to us and we will take appropriate action.” My photo.
So—unless one were so desperate as to switch on the CCTV news—my whole trip was notable for his absence. Far Be It From Me to claim that he’s not an evil autocrat bent on crushing all dissent and Destroying Civilisation As We Know It, but the tone of these online scare stories reminds me of the Daily Mail. It seems I have to come to China to escape from him (or should I say Him).
* * *
Sure, we’re all “blind people groping at the elephant”. We have to study everyone, including elites, and some scholars and journos have to focus on one man at the top of the structure. Not only do decisions made from on high affect the lives of ordinary people, but there are very compelling reasons why we should pay attention to the insidious encroachment of autocracy and the escalating erosion of rights. Everywhere.
Still, my single biggest culture-shock at returning home to the foreign media was to be suddenly reminded of their obsession with Uncle Xi. Those who follow such authoritative China-watchers might easily deduce that his worship is an all-consuming duty—but such a conclusion bears little relationship to the daily lives of Chinese people.
So foreign coverage may be diametrically at odds with Chinese propaganda, but they’re both barking up the same tree. Meanwhile the Labouring Masses either take action or Keep Calm and Carry On, ignoring all the flapdoodle; and other scholars, Chinese and foreign, get on with writing about the lives of real people, exposing grass-roots problems.
*** Update: brilliant headline from Girish Sihane:
Xi sells seashells by the seashore as Modi’s foreign policy lies in tatters
If only they had met in the Seychelles… Here’s John Finnemore again (cf. here and here):
 I inadvertently find myself referring to these posters as shenxiang 神像, god images—which always gets a giggle.
 By contrast, see e.g. here: “the only image I saw more frequently—in elementary-school classrooms, in airports and shopping malls, on billboards on highways and in rice paddies—was the face of President Xi Jinping. Each image was identical: the country’s supreme leader, with raven-black hair and a face fastidiously airbrushed to erase any hint of human blemish, smiling calmly against a sky-blue background: an unimpeachable deity in an officially atheist state.” See also this photo essay.  For worthier feminist slogans, see here, and here.
Scholarly rigour obliges me to observe that this may have been concocted from an old line of the late great Humphrey Lyttleton on I’m sorry I haven’t a clue—its target then (yet more suitably) being Antony Worrall Thompson.
Strictly in the interests of gender equality, I believe the female version goes
Fluff with a wooden spoon
Again, take your pick—Nigella? or the numinous Fanny Cradock?
While we’re on football, in the notorious and grandly-named Saipan incident in the run-up to the 2002 World Cup, Roy Keane’s spat with the Republic of Ireland team manager Mick McCarthy evokes the principled hauteur of an illustrious Ming-dynasty court official going into voluntary exile rather than serving under the new Manchu regime.
The confrontation between player and manager allegedly culminated in this fine rant from Keane:
“Mick, you’re a liar… you’re a fucking wanker. I didn’t rate you as a player, I don’t rate you as a manager, and I don’t rate you as a person. The only reason I have any dealings with you is that somehow you are manager of my country and you’re not even Irish, you English cunt. You can stick the World Cup up your bollocks.”
Reporting the story, the Guardian came out with the magnificent headline
On syntax, in cases like these it can be tricky to surmise whether the opening adjective should apply to the first noun or to the following adjectival noun–noun pair. Some may be clarified by means of a judiciously-placed hyphen, but that would spoil the fun:
Welcome to our theme café, Sir and Madam, I’m Fido, your racist dog waiter for this evening, and I’ll be whistling your favourite racist ditties for you to sing along to—specials on the board, and a fine selection of craft rightwing beers. (Did you just see that Pekinese? I dunno, they come over ‘ere… Woof! LOL—What am I like?) Perhaps I can warm you up by warbling The Stammering Coon.
Confirming Kate Fox’s anthropological observation that the creative love of wordplay evinced by our tabloid headlines is one of rather few things of which the British can be proud, here’s one spotted today (about a table-tennis player involved in an altercation, you understand):
Actually, a quick search online shows that this has quite a history. Once freed of the petty constraint of describing an actual event (which has seldom held the tabloids back), it can even expand into the headline reporting a fight involving a giant ape at a table-tennis club karaoke night:
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, Andrew Lawrence 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.
Since I often seem to find myself citing drôle headlines, Kate Fox again has some fine observations on the subject (Watching the English, p.225):
It seems to me that the English love of words—and particularly the universal nature of this passion, which transcends all class barriers—is most perfectly demonstrated not by the erudite wit of the broadsheet columnists, brilliant though they are, but by the journalists and sub-editors who write the headlines in the tabloids. Take a random selection of English tabloids and flip through them: you will soon notice that almost every other headline involves some kind of play on words—a pun, a double meaning, a deliberate jokey misspelling, a literary or historical reference, a clever neologism, an ironic put-down, a cunning rhyme or amusing alliteration, and so on.
Yes, many of the puns are dreadful; much of the humour is laboured, vulgar, or childish; the sexual innuendo is overdone; and the relentlessness of the wordplay can become wearing after a while. You may find yourself longing for a headline that simply gives you the gist of the story, without trying to be funny or clever. But the sheer ingenuity and linguistic playfulness must be admired, and all this compulsive punning, rhyming, and joking is uniquely and gloriously English. Other countries may have “quality” newspapers at least as learned and well written as ours, but no other national press can rival the manic wordplay of English tabloid headlines. So there we are: something to be proud of.
And it’s not just the tabloids: even the Grauniad is not above
the truth about George Orwell’s romantic “arrangements”
although they would doubtless lay claim to a more post-modern sense of irony than the red-tops bother with.
Another highlight from TheChina Daily was a full-page advertisement taken out in 1987 by the wackily-named China National Arts and Crafts Import and Export Corporation Guangdong branch. The 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: