A taxonomy of taxonomies

Lee

One of the challenges of maintaining this blog is to overhaul all the categories and tags in the sidebar, although they remain rough and ready. After all, Life Itself is about classifying, organizing—plastic toys, musical instruments (indeed both), bookshelves, shopping lists, concepts, and so on. Here are a few headings:

Indexing is an under-estimated pleasure:

On slicing the pie of music, and religion:

Scholars’ attempts to classify expressive culture in China illustrate how we need a fluid concept of genres, constantly intersecting and crossing borders, as I outlined in my review of the great Anthology. Ethnography is the key.

Organology is a fascinating topic, with the endlessly fascinating Sachs–Hornbostel system:

And, definitively, an early Stewart Lee sketch clearing up a flawed interpretation of the Lord’s Creation:

Far from validating narrow discrimination, all this demands a nuanced, flexible view of human culture…

How to be English

Lee

The insights of Stewart Lee feature regularly on here. Last week he did a wonderful guest slot of three programmes on Radio 3’s Late Junction (starting here):

Now who doesn’t like Czechoslovakian Communist-era free jazz…

And I now find a rich archive of his TV series Comedy vehicle on the BBC website. Among all the treasures there, I am most taken with his take on St George’s Day in the England episode—pursuing his bête noire of Paul Nuttall and the UKIPs.

As ever, he reformulates motifs from previous work, just like Bach and Miles Davis [fine new submission for Pseuds’ corner—Ed.]. But what I respectfully wish to submit [m’lud] is the passage from 20.31. He goes on (and on, and on):

[Nuttall is] only trying as best he can to ensure the future domestic prosperity of Bulgaria—I don’t doubt that for a minute. […]

I live here, in the People’s Republic of Hackney, in northeast London. It’s very culturally diverse (not really in this audience). I’ve had kids at nursery and playgroup here. And what they do at the nurseries and playgroups in Hackney, they celebrate all the different kids’ festivals and cultural events in what you might call a logical, sensitive, and pragmatic approach to cultural diversity… “gone mad”. They celebrate Christian Christmas, Chinese New Year, Muslim Michaelmas, Atheist April Fool’s Day, Pantheists’ Pancake Day, Odinist Oatcake Day, and Lesbian Gay and Bisexual Harvest Festival […]

But, EDL members and Daily Telegraph readers relax—they do celebrate St George’s Day as well. On St George’s Day they told me I had to send my little two-year-old girl into the Hackney playgroup dressed in traditional English costume. So I sent her in dressed as a 1970s’ English football hooligan, with a cross of St George and all swastikas drawn on her face… and I had her drunk on Special Brew, and high on amphetamines… I gave her sharpened coins to throw at horses, and I had her shouting,
“I’m English, I’m English! Wanna make something of it?”

Now, that led to a misunderstanding… and the police became involved. “Apparently if you say you’re English these days you get arrested and thrown in jail…”

The dénouement there refers back to his exchange with a taxi driver, already immortalized in this sketch.

I do appreciate that I will now look like the worst kind of BBC liberal apologist idiot if you’re all sitting at home watching this dubbed into Bulgarian. With Romanian subtitles.

All this ploughs a somewhat different furrow from that of The ArchersFor more on being English, see here.

Alexei Sayle

Alexei Sayle‘s memoir Stalin ate my homework, on his, um, unusual upbringing, is at once heartfelt, perceptive, and hilarious. And the sequel Thatcher stole my trousers* has insights on the alternative comedy scene, his early standup, and The Young ones.

Born in 1952 to idealistic left-wing atheist Jewish working-class parents—genial Joe and the brilliantly indiscreet Molly—he evokes the conditions of post-war Anfield with wry detail.

Though not universal, it was instinctual among a great many British Communists to be noisily unpatriotic. […] To my parents and their friends it was as if by cheering on the English football team, the cricket team, or Britain’s runners you were somehow revelling in slavery, the Amritsar Massacre, the suppression of the Irish, or the Opium Wars.

At primary school:

At break-time in the first week our teacher, Miss Wilson, said to the assembled class, “All right, class, now let’s bow our heads in prayer and thank God for this milk we’re drinking.” At which point I stood up and said, “No, Miss Wilson, I think you’ll find that the milk comes to us via the Milk Marketing Board, a public body set up in 1933 to control the production, pricing, and distribution of milk and other dairy products within the UK. It has nothing to do with the intervention of some questionable divine entity.”

Echoes of Irene Handl’s line in Morgan: a suitable case for treatment: “I mean, we brought you up to respect Lenin, Marx, Harry Pollitt…”

Profiting from [!] the free rail travel available to the family with his father’s position in the National Union of Railwaymen [sic], the family often took holidays abroad: “by the age of five I must have been the most travelled child in Anfield.” They soon began making trips behind the Iron curtainAt a Time when it was Neither Profitable nor Popular, I note. To pursue the latest results of my interest in east Europe (e.g. here, and here), it’s these vignettes that I’d like to cite here.

For all his parent’s aspirations, Alexei casts a rather more detached view on their holidays. Of course, they could hardly imagine the tribulations of the working people with whom they identified, or even the apparatchiks who hosted them. But with his own background, he does more than merely getting a cheap laugh out of state socialism. These passages are interesting mainly for his own story, in which idealism and cynicism evolved hand in hand, a surreal training that would bear fruit in his later career.

Joe and Molly had taken the crushing of the 1956 Budapest uprising in their stride; welcoming it as a test of faith, they scorned British Communists who

didn’t understand that the march towards liberty, peace, and freedom couldn’t be held up by a load of people demanding liberty, peace, and freedom.

Enthralled by a visit to the Czechoslovak pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World Fair, with its marionettes, Magic Lantern Theatre, and colourful avant-garde design, in August 1959 visited the country for the first time. Somehow their trip begins at a campsite in the sleepy spa-town of Karlovy Vary. After an interlude at a union-owned miners’ sanitorium, the wheels of diplomacy click into gear and they are rescued by a fleet of black Tatra limousines which takes them on to Prague, where they are chaperoned lavishly.

Next year they organized a group of like-minded comrades for another visit. This time the authorities

had decided what the first delegation of British railwaymen to Czechoslovakia would like to see more than anything else were sights, locations, and exhibitis connected with the wartime assassination of Reinhard Heidrich, the butcher of Prague.

They were among early foreign visitors to see Lidice, scene of one of the most appalling Nazi massacres. On a brighter note, they were taken to the Švejk pub in Prague, and when they got back home his parents bought him a copy of Hašek’s novel. When he eventually read it aged twelve or thirteen, he

wondered if the Czech authorities knew what they were doing promoting with Švejk, letting a pub be opened in his name and selling cuddly toys in his likeness, since the message of the book, while it might have been anti-authoritarian, is certainly not one supportive of the ideals of socialist conformity.

Indeed, The good soldier Švejk soon became very popular in China, where its message must also have concerned the authorities.

Anyway, back in Anfield, by the age of eight Alexei was able to report proudly to an eager young vicar,

“I am a Comrade Cadet, Grade One, Young Pioneers, fourth battalion, based at Locomotive Factory Number One, town of Trutnow, People’s Republic of Czechoslovakia!”

And one already feels a hint of the irony that would later inhabit Alexei’s stage persona (see here), with a substantial ingredient of Švejk.

For their summer holidays in 1961 they visited Hungary, lavishly accommodated in a grand baroque hotel in keeping with their incongruous status as VIPs. On a trip to Lake Balaton Alexei discovers salad, in a passage that will strike a chord with those of our generation:

Back in Anfield we had thought with a certain amount of pride that on Sundays we had been eating salad, but really all we had been eating was lettuce and tomatoes in a bowl, sometimes with a hard-boiled egg on the top and no dressing except perhaps the industrial solvent known as “salad cream”. Now I saw what a salad really could be under socialism. There were red, green, and yellow peppers, corn on the cob, huge tomatoes stuffed with Russian salad, artichokes, celery, lentils, okra, and fresh herbs, all of them covered in rich oils or mayonnaise.

(For Nina Stibbe’s candid assessment of tarragon, see here.)

He accumulates yet more pennants and badges to accompany his hoard of Bohemian glass, dolls, and “folklorique woven things” that he didn’t know what to do with—

It was hard to stop people in Communist countries giving you things [an idea taken further by Elif Batuman].

In 1962 they took their third trip to Czechoslovakia, and in 1963 Joe led a delegation of railwaymen to Hungary. This time Alexei’s feelings are more conflicted:

Sadly, if you are beginning to feel unsettled about people’s motivation then visiting a country in which some six hundred thousand citizens were deported to Soviet labour camps after the Second World War, where they spoke a weird Finno-Ugric language completely unrelated to those around it, where there were great tensions between the various ethnic groupings, Hungarian, Romanian, and gypsy, and where a revolution had been brutally suppressed only seven years before, probably wasn’t a good idea.

Joe and Molly make elaborate preparations for a tour of the northwest by a dance troupe from Czechoslovakia, but it falls through. In summer 1966 they flew to Bulgaria under the auspices of that new bourgeois creation, a package holiday. Meeting some local teenagers in search of Beatles records, he realizes that

up until then we had only ever mixed with people who were part of the system, who were loyal to the party and its allied organizations. […] Clearly there were tensions, but you didn’t get to be a Communist without learning to ignore what was in front of your face.

With his affinity with both railways and Czechoslovakia, he was always going to love Closely observed trains (Jiří Menzel, 1966)—another of those films that also left a deep impression on my student years. For his penchant for Polish cinema, see here.

Following Kruschev’s reforms,

though slightly assuaged by the crushing of revolts in Hungary and East Germany, many in the West’s Communist movements were uneasy with this liberalisation. They didn’t like the idea of a Communist society allowing its citizens to express their opinions freely or have a choice of more than one type of hat. Yet they had nowhere to take their disaffection until the Sino-Soviet split offered these puritan characters a choice of an extra-dour kind of socialism more in keeping with their sententious inclinations.

So, going from frying-pan to fire in a remarkable lapse of judgement, Alexei became a Maoist. You can continue reading his later story for yourself, moving on to his perceptive account of his bohemian life at art school in London, his role in alternative comedy—and Molly’s blooming [see what I did there?] as a foul-mouthed lollipop lady. For more (not least his critique of ballroom dancing), see here.

So while Alexei didn’t get to play the Matthew passion or hang out with Li Manshan (though both are charming fantasies), I regard his upbringing, not to mention his later career, with a certain envy.

For other excellent memoirs in what can be a dodgy field, I think of George Melly and Arthur Smith. And this chat with Stewart Lee is a match made in heaven:

 

* Sinology could do with some titles like these (for a somewhat less appetizing one, see under Jarring here).

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. See also A fine riposte, and Das Land ohne Musik.

For the “Golden Age” of the Tang, Chinese scholars might learn from 17th-century Holland.

 

[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.