Alexei Sayle

Alexei Sayle never loses his surreal edge. In his brilliant Imaginary sandwich bar radio series he plans a sultry film noir aimed at the children’s market,

 Postman Pat always rings twice.

On rationing:

From 1939 to 1945 the government had permitted, indeed had positively encouraged men to bayonet people in the guts or set them on fire with flame throwers or bomb their houses from 20,000 feet, but when they came home they couldn’t have a tomato until 1957!

With the immaculate credentials of his upringing (see his fine memoir Stalin ate my homework), he reflects,

I think despite all the chaos we create, the famines, the gulags, left-wing people are basically good people. Admittedly left-wing regimes might over time devolve into authoritarian kleptocracies whose autocratic rule is enforced by terror and torture, but we do mean well.

Despite my strange enthusiasm for Strictly, I applaud his critique (relevant also to the Chinese heritage flummery):

Everything is wrong with ballroom dancing: the clothes, the music, even the expressions on the dancers’ faces, plus of course the dancing itself. The reason for this is simple—you get points for it. Ballroom dancing is an aethetic pursuit, an art form, which has been turned into a competition, the result of which is that everything is done to attract the attention of the judges. The competitors must try and fit into a series of rules rather than display emotion, artistry and invention, and so a tawdry, flashy, kitsch aesthetic takes over. […] If you see a couple performing a proper Argeninian tango you are watching a dance created in the brothels of Buenos Aires that reeks of melancholy and sex. Then you watch the ballroom version of tango, all gurning faces and robotic, angular, hideous movements. You are seeing a great popular art reduced to a terrible travesty.

He elaborates on the Pannacotta Army line (“ancient figures of soldiers, sculpted out of soft white cheese”), and reminds me of the old Snow White and the Seven Samurai joke, which gave Tom Holt the title for his drôle book. Which might lead us to Nick Helm’s line:

I needed a password eight characters long—so I picked Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

To return to Alexei, this chat with Stewart Lee is a match made in heaven:

 

They come over ‘ere…

Central Asian musicians, Tang dynasty.

Here’s a companion piece to my post on foreigners during the Cultural Revolution, where I acknowledged my anachronistic use of the epithet laowai 老外.

I read that indeed the term didn’t become common until the 1980s—just in time to greet me on my late arrival (for some words that Shakespeare may not have invented, see here). The Chinese wiki article on laowai makes a useful succinct introduction, explaining its interplay of respect and xenophobia. I’m still curious to learn how the winning combo of lao and wai suddenly caught on. A detailed forum on the nuances of this and related terms has been initiated by the erudite Victor Mair, so here I’ll just add a few personal reflections.

A still more blunt term is dabizi 大鼻子 “big nose”; foreigners in China have to get used to frequent appraisals of their physiognomy, but as an autonym, at least, the term can be drôle. I’m also fond of the more quaintly retro yang guizi 洋鬼子 (“foreign devil”), which a senior Taiwanese mentor—and, crucially, friend!—likes to call me. As ever, such terms are context-sensitive; they may even confirm guanxi (“You’re my mate—we can take the piss together”).

At a tangent, in Shaanbei a fine shawm-band leader is widely known as Jiekazi “The Stammerer”—in rural China, attitudes towards stammering are both less po-faced and less courteous.

Craig and Ming

Waiguoren!” (not yet “Laowai!”). Craig Clunas, Ming tombs 1975.

Staying with China (derogatory terms for foreigners are of course a rich topic worldwide), apart from the various historical terms (hu 胡, fan 番, yi 夷, man 蠻, and so on—mostly with a strong suggestion of “barbarian”), I’m now curious to learn how the Labouring Masses of the Tang dynasty would have hailed the substantial number of laowai on the streets of 8th-century Xi’an in the popular argot of the day.

We may now regard the Tang as the first great world-music boom, but as musical nationalists of the day (like the poet Bai Juyi and his mate Yuan Zhen) might have said,

“They come over ‘ere, with their fancy bili and pipa…”

Or their Qing-dynasty counterparts (so does building walls work, then? Eh??):

“They come over ‘ere, with their fancy erhu and suona and yangqin…”

OK, I made those up, but this is a genuine Tang quote (adding impertinent male judgment on female attire to the heady xenophobic mix): [1]

Our women are acting like foreigners’ wives, studying foreign make-up;
Entertainers present foreign sounds, servants to foreign music!

Straight out of the Daily Mail, that. With the current surge in “patriotism”, a new campaign to purge corrupting foreign influence from the Chinese instrumentarium would be left mainly with the xun ocarina and the sheng mouth-organ—which might fail to excite even Uncle Xi. It’s ironic that after successive waves, it was the Model Operas of the Cultural Revolution that were largely responsible for a renewed vogue for the instruments of the Western Art Music tradition.

Closer to home (yet equally apposite), a classic rebuke to xenophobia is the great Stewart Lee’s UKIP routine (“Bloody Huguenots, Coming Over Here—doubting trans-substantiation, with their famed ability to weave little jerkins out of lace…”). And to supplement his fantasy chat down the UKIP pub:

“Apparently the guitar is descended from the oud—that’s bloody Moorish, mate! What’s wrong with Morris dancing, that’s wot I say!”

[Inconvenient footnote: an inconclusive etymology suggests that “Morris” is itself derived from “Moorish”…]

As simplistic nationalist agendas rear their ugly orange heads yet again, it’s always worth unpacking language.

 

[1] See e.g. Suzanne E. Cahill, “Our women are acting like foreigners’ wives! Western influences of Tang dynasty women’s fashion”, in Steele and Major (eds), China Chic: East Meets West. Among many works, see also Marc S. Abramson (ed.), Ethnic Identity in Tang China. The works of Edward Schafer (notably The golden peaches of Samarkand and The vermilion bird, written at a time when such study was neither profitable nor popular) have long been an inspiration for those studying Central Asian culture in the Tang.

 

Downhill: Steven Wright

Before Milton Jones and Tim Vine, but considerably after Hildegard von Bingen, there was Steven Wright, king of deadpan brevity.

Went out and bought myself a decaffeinated coffee table.

With that wording, and his delivery, that version is superior to some that you’ll find online.

This next “joke” is widely attributed to Milton Jones, but I swear I heard it Steven Wright doing it around thirty years ago:

Shortly before he died, my grandmother [pause] smeared my grandfather from head to toe in lard. After that, he went downhill very quickly.

Again, online versions are less well crafted. I distinctly remember the pause—he’s already got the audience thinking, WTF…

Like Daoist ritual, the texts are very fine on the page, but it’s all about performance. So here are some of his classics:

Inevitable further link: Stewart Lee’s routine on the Sardine joke and joke ownership.

Humour: why?

Perhaps it’s time for a pensée, or apercu, about some of the seemingly incongruous juxtapositions on this blog.

I realize some of these jokes may try the patience of disgruntled readers who have come here, in all innocence, seeking insights into the Wisdom of the Ancient Sages or the Mastery (sic) of the Great Composers. And indeed vice versa: anyone here for laughs will be pretty cheesed off to have to plough through blow-by-blow accounts of Daoist ritual and Messiaen.

Humour has always played a major role in my rapport both with my colleagues and local subjects—but that’s not the card I’m going to play.

Rather, humour can serve to console, to resist, to create ludic connections. It’s no more universal than music—but just as in Daoist ritual (which not only uses language creatively but incorporates segments to entertain mere mortals), and just as in WAM (thinking, for instance, of Haydn and Mozart), humour reminds us of our humanity.

Anyway, I like it.

Jokes (again, like Daoist ritual) are created by people, they take on a life of their own, transmitted in different versions over time for changing audiences. And despite silent, empty, versions in print, they thrive on and evolve through live interaction in performance.

However (and once again, like ritual or music), I’m sure this can become less satisfying for the professional, churning out the same routine night after night for an unfamiliar audience. That’s why Stewart Lee is so great, and it’s what makes his book How I escaped my certain fate so thoughtful. But that’s not important right now.

An orchestral classic

À propos orchestral humourStewart Lee does a typically labyrinthine riff giving the old sardine joke his signature going-over:

Loath as I am to spoil the fun, in the WAM biz where people used to employ me, this story is famously attributed to the brilliant percussionist and all-round piss-artist Gary Kettel.

A hooliganesque Cockney, Gary was What They Call “a breath of fresh air” in the staid orchestral scene. During Boulez’s golden years at the helm of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducting many challenging works, he much admired Gary’s musicianship, and they formed a charming and unlikely bond.

The version handed down to posterity in the orchestral biz (which beyond Gary’s own recollections has some further effective, if fanciful, detail) goes like this:

Once (this must have been in the mid-70s) he was on tour in South America with the London Sinfonietta, doing the, um, challenging Eight Songs for a Mad King.

So Gary’s at this fancy British Council reception after the gig in Buenos Aires or somewhere, getting quietly pissed in a corner on his own, and this posh bird comes up to him and goes,
“I say, I don’t believe we’ve been introduced—weren’t you playing in the concert? I did so enjoy your delightful rendition of that charming work!” [that’s a nice touch, by the way, if you know the piece, but that’s not important right now]. “Do please remind me,” she goes on, “what was it you were playing?”
“Oh, I fool around a bit on the drums, luv,” goes Gary—”So wot you doin’ ‘ere then?”
“I’m here with my husband.” she replies loftily.
Gary goes on, chummily, “An’ wot does your old man do then, darlin’?”
“My husband’s in oil!” she exclaims, proudly.
Gary goes, “What is he, a fuckin’ sardine?”

I like the details here. And the punchline is a good instance of the importance of the word “fuckin’ ”—not least for rhythm and euphony. The story also reflects musos’ own delight in “deviating from behavioural norms”.

Keen as I am on the ancestry of texts (my book ch.11), just as one does in exploring the relation and transmission of Daoist texts (well, I say “one”…), I wonder: Gary’s not sure, but could he have heard it from Tom O’Connor, or did they both get it from someone else, and so on (zzz)?

The Tom O’Connor version is less personal and less funny—which is precisely what makes it a suitable victim for Stew to mangle, a banal ground-bass lying prone for his endless florid divisions, a Goldberg variations from hell…

For further detail, see How I escaped my certain fate, pp.257–69—by now tuned into the De Selby footnotes in The third policeman, (and here), you will find further verbose and erudite annotations there too.

Pub conversation

Stewart Lee always hits the nail (here, the xenophobes) on the head. Discussing the perils of moving to the countryside, he observes:

In London, if your pub becomes a BNP pub you can easily go to another one. But in a village where there is only one pub you have to make the best of it and try and join in the conversation.
“Evening.”
“Oh, hello. Er… Hated any new races lately?”
“Yes, Polynesians, actually. And blacks as usual, obviously. Yourself?”
“Oh, you know, just the Jews mainly. You know me.”

Creative writing footnote: the “Yourself?” is finely observed, astutely capturing the chummy Faragesque language.