Modifying disfluency

Marilyn
Not such a gratuitous illustration: one of the Great Stammerers,
as well as a worthy pretext for a link to female jazzers.

I’ve already featured stammering quite often on this blog (see tag). Rather than expecting you to listen to this in the form of a six-hour podcast, these notes may serve partly as a reminder for myself, and for others wrestling with vocal fluency. But they may be of wider interest too: effective communication isn’t merely about disorders commonly identified as “stammering”.

We all labour under various habitual ailments through life, but on reflection the constant struggle with fluency is still an extraordinary experience. I spent the first forty years of my life trying at all costs to avoid stammering—indeed, to speak in public at all. And the more one struggles to avoid it, the harder it is to modify:

stammering is what we do when we try to avoid stammering.

Theory
Among the substantial literature, from the days when I was doing occasional group therapy courses (and it’s not a one-off fix), I remain most impressed by

  • Malcolm Fraser, Self-therapy for the stutterer (1987, 11th edition 2010!), available here,

which I heartedly recommend, even if I make only sporadic progress in implementing its suggestions. I note that it has been translated into German, French, Spanish, Japanese, Lithuanian, Finnish, Slovakian, Danish, Russian, Czech, Zulu, Bosnian, Bulgarian, Norwegian, Arabic, Polish, Thai, Portuguese—and Chinese (5th edition here; for less helpful techniques reported in the China Daily, see here; and for my encounter with a stammering shawm player, here). That still leaves plenty of worldwide stammerers in need of the book’s guidance.

Like Life, speech therapy goes through fads. We can dismiss short-term solutions like sing-song inflection (indeed, singing), metronomic speech, finger-tapping, foot-stamping. Even prolonged (slurred, or perhaps legato) speech, while an important part of one’s toolbox, is only a temporary relief. We need a wide range of approaches at our disposal, without depending on particular crutches.

Of the major therapists (mostly sufferers themselves), great pioneers were Charles van Riper and Joseph Sheehan. So here’s yet another iceberg: we need to reveal all the accumulated covert behaviour that makes up our stammering. Therapy pays as much attention to psychological as to physical techniques.The basic aim is eliminate all such behaviour and avoidances, at various levels:

  • To stop avoiding situations themselves. Of course, some situations are more stressful than others. At one end of the continuum would be spending time with a small group of old friends; at the other, delivering a worldwide live TV broadcast on an unprepared topic that one knows absolutely nothing about. Naked.
  • To stop avoiding particular words (staggeringly common!): to catch ourselves substituting words, and stop it!
  • And then, when stuck on a word, or anticipating a block, we mustn’t fear/avoid/postpone the sound of stammering.

Our goal shouldn’t be “fluency”, and certainly not to “avoid stammering”. Strangely, in solitary preparation at home, where blocks don’t naturally occur, it’s about reminding myself what they feel like when they do—manufacturing, monitoring, and then modifying them.

Conversely, during and after a presentation (or indeed just routine conversation), often I don’t experience fluency, I’m merely relieved at not stammering too badly. But to build on fluency we need that sensation.

stammering stan

Please excuse me for featuring this cartoon yet again, but it says it all.

  • pausing: well-meaning encouragement to relax, take a deep breath, and so on, are of little avail when one’s efforts aren’t based on thorough preparation, So—instead of

rushingheadlongtogetasmanywordsoutaspossiblebeforemeetinganuncontrollable

B—

internalize the experience of taking pauses (breathing!!!) while you

  • keep moving forward—a major step to replace backtracking, postponing, or trying to get a run-up;
  • monitoring: finding out what you do when you stammer, including extraneous bodily movements and eye contact; superfluous and counter-productive filler words;
  • desensitizing and “easy/voluntary stammering” (stammering on purpose on non-feared words, in a variety of ways!): this can be an amazing sensation. See also here.
  • modifying blocks: easy onsets, light contacts, extended sounds.

Amidst the whole blinkered panic that besets us, humour can play a useful role, as in my stammering games, or Gepopo.

Putting it into practice
Thing is, modifying habitual addictive behaviour needs a lot of work: an investment of time and energy. One tends to have other things to do, and accept one’s wretched fate.

“It’s easy for you to say that…”

We should aim to enter speaking situations with forethought: to bear goals in mind. We’re advised to prepare before making a phone call, or asking for things in shops, or even talking with friends; again, the goal can be modest, like remembering to pause, or using a deliberate (easy) stammer at least once in such situations…

In private practice, extreme slowed speech is a great feeling; after all, public speakers vary in their speed of delivery, and some of the most effective are those who speak remarkably slowly (see below). But both this and voluntary stammering may be tough to practice in the heat of the social moment, as we flounder around helplessly, lurching from one crisis to another.

Conversely, in the company of the Li family Daoists I generally rise to the occasion. Whereas in London, not only do I rarely talk in public but I hardly ever talk to anyone at all, at my happy meetings with people in Yanggao, and on tour with the band, I’m propelled into constant sociability, often in the company of a large group; and then I manage public speaking with quite minor preparation. It’s so much easier when I’m on a roll. I love Li Manshan’s comment:

“Wotcha doing when you get back to Beijing?”, he goes.
“I’m going to be giving lectures (jiangke)…”
His local dialect, or his lively mind, instantly converts this to jieka “stammering”:
“Old Jonesy, you don’t have to go back to Beijing to stammer—you can just keep on stammering away here!”

Still, simply talking regularly isn’t a panacea if one merely reinforces negative behaviour. And even after relatively successful presentations in Beijing and the British Museum this year, I was taken aback by my disfluency at a more recent London appearance—a film screening that I had already successfully negotiated many times. With this reminder that I still constantly need to put in the work, I prepared more thoroughly for my latest presentation, and it went better again. I still wasn’t exactly monitoring and modifying, but at least I wasn’t avoiding blocks; I got through it, somehow—and that’s progress.

It can be tough for the audience too: I sometimes put in a little aside to help defuse mutual embarrassment, like “You may also like to entertain yourselves by trying to work out what goes wrong when I encounter a helpless b-b-block!”. Intriguingly, this sentence tends to emerge rather fluently—just to show how it’s all about being open.

Anyway, by now, with positive experiences to build on at last, I think I can just about do it; but it requires constant vigilance. I need to keep hearing myself stammering, which may involve manufacturing blocks in preparation, and then getting into the habit of modifying them.

* * *

To be fair, the bar for academic presentation is rather low. More often than not, the goal here seems to be merely to fulfill the embarrassing task of speaking at all, rather than the noble pure aloof form of silent text—an audience being no more desirable than in the toilet. One often witnesses mumbled delivery, avoidance of eye contact or any physical attributes that might suggest human communication, as if engaging the audience, even making one’s topic sound interesting, is some demeaning concession to populism. Stammerers probably shouldn’t find this a consolation.

Whether or not we’re afffflicted with a recognized bona fide imp-p-pediment, effective public speaking is much to be appreciated. While I’m deeply envious of fluent communicators, they too achieve their results with practice—like Robert Peston, whose random hesitant delivery, with its arbitrary accents and intonation, is brilliantly compelling, even while suggesting someone taking the p-p-p-mickey out of
de-li-ber-ate       sssslo-o-owed    speeeeech.

Note the nice fortuitous mention of the iceberg… For Peston’s (real) cameo with the great Philomena Cunk, see here (episode 5, from 13.04).

Effective therapy is based on getting the problem out in the open, and even posts like this are a tiny part of that.

For brilliant help in the UK, there are the British Stammering Association and the City Lit. But it’s up to us!

 

Pontius Pilate, and the mad jailers

pilate

Hot on the vertiginous goose-stepping heels of Gepopo

In my series on stammering I’ve already covered Michael Palin’s authentic depiction in A fish called Wanda.

But he was already on the case of various types of imp-p-pediment with Monty P-Python, as in the iconic Pontius Pilate scene (taking the pith) in The life of Brian:

That’s all good harmless fun; but here I’d like to focus on another more disturbing portrayal. The cameos from the mad jailers (this time played by Terry Gilliam and Eric Idle) are hideously well-observed, right down to the stamp of the foot to force the word out. In the first scene here, they taunt Palin as he channels the benign schoolmaster; and the second (from 2.07) is the coup de grace, with the jailers nonchalantly reverting to fluency once alone together—reminiscent of Larson’s cows:

Some stammerers may find that tough going, but I’d suggest it’s all part of chipping away at the iceberg of fear.

One of the benefits of group speech therapy sessions, however excruciating, is to watch one’s disfluent speech played back on video, so as to observe all the ways in which we sabotage the whole vocal apparatus—extreme tension of the lips and throat, holding the breath, futile movements of eyes, hands, and body, and so on. Disfluency takes many forms. Sufferers are often so trapped in desperate attempts to avoid stammering, and their audiences so trapped in embarrassment, that neither may have a clear idea of what exactly it is that is preventing them from uttering the word. The crucial first stage is monitoring.

And a further technique is for the sufferer to imitate such features deliberately—choosing a consonant on which to tense the mouth and lips, repeating it quickly or slowly with varying degrees of tension, even reproducing the way we backtrack and then start over, deciding how many repetititititions to do. Varying the severity of the block like this can create the precious experience of having control over one’s speech for a change. And then (maybe) one can insert “easy stammers”, and if not actually refrain from stammering, at least be aware of some options.

It’s easy for you to say that, SSSteve…

Anyway, far beyond its niche exploration of speech impediments, The life of Brian is brilliant!

Gepopo: pa-pa-pa-panic

Gepopo 2

Speaking (sic) as a stammerer, I’m always on the lookout for coverage of speech imp-p-pediments (see e.g. We have ways of making you talkStammering gamesPontius Pilate, and the mad jailers).

So in György Ligeti‘s wacky, grotesque, absurdist opera Le Grand Macabre (see e.g. this article by Tom Service) I note the character of Gepopo, whose extreme vocal irregularities occupy a special place in the spectrum of communication issues.

The astounding Barbara Hannigan introduces the role she has made her own:

The character Gepopo, the chief of the secret police of Brueghelland, approaches Prince Go-Go to warn him and the people of Brueghelland that intelligence has learned of a huge comet heading through space towards them which will destroy their planet. Unfortunately, Gepopo is paralyzed with fear and paranoid hysteria, so his almost unintelligible, coded warning is not easily understood by Prince Go-Go, who, mainly interested in a hearty meal, drives Gepopo to further convulsions of highflying vocal panic as the piece draws to a anxiety-ridden finale.

Gepopo

Shades of the Pearl and Dean theme tune? So far this passage has not found favour as an in-flight announcement (cf. The perils of the tannoy, and Putana da seatbeltz; for airline acronyms, see here). But I digress…

Psychotic, deranged, Gepopo is hardly an advertisement for easy stammering—no more to be recommended as speech therapy than Rossini’s “stupefaction ensembles”. BTW, reasons for the far higher ratio of male to female stammerers are still not well understood.

Here’s Barbara Hannigan in an, um, “orthodox” stage version:

Gepopo’s three arias (“Pssst! … Shsht! … Cocococo!“, “Aah! … Secret cipher!“, and “Kukuriku! … He’s coming!“) are also performed as a cycle arranged by Elgar Howarth for the concert stage as Mysteries of the macabre—here conducted (suitably) by S-S-S-Simon:

Dazzling as it is, I’m not sure it’s exactly PC to distract the audience from Gepopo’s demented sadism with a fantasy schoolgirl uniform—perhaps the transgressive, meretricious device suits Ligeti’s concept (discuss…). We might also compare this version:

Feminist scholars have unpacked gender roles in music (including Berg‘s Lulu, another of Hannigan’s star roles, which she explores perceptively—and fluently!— here), with cross-genre discussions of the femme fatale/diva/prima donna, and such an approach could be instructive here too.

With thanks to Rowan—
whose own vocals, while not so ambitious,
are “less irritating than Glenn Gould”

(The Feuchtwang Variations, n.3).

 

 

Three baldies and a mouth-organ

On the visit of the Zhihua temple group to a fine festival at the British Museum;
and a further note on stammering.

dav

Early in 1986, only a couple of days after my first arrival in Beijing, hearing the former monks of the Zhihua temple on a cold but beautifully sunny winter’s day was an experience that changed my life—and their ritual soundscape still entrances me:

Musicologist He Changlin astutely took me to a Buddhist temple to ask a group of elderly former monks to play their shengguan music for us. That sound will always stay with me. The soulful guanzi, the darting dizi, the sturdy sheng, the halo of the yunluo piercing the bright Beijing sky above the green-and-yellow roof-tiles of the temple…
[adapted from my Plucking the winds, p.185]

While I go to great lengths to stress that the Zhihua temple is only the tip of the iceberg—for ritual life both within Beijing and all over north China—its liturgy remains a classic source, and its soundscape ever-entrancing. There are no “living fossils”, and the temple itself has long ceased to function as a ritual site; but the present group performs with majestic authority, led by Hu Qingxue, about whom I must write in more detail—he’s not only an amazing guanzi player, but a fine vocal liturgist, and he’s just as hooked on exploring ritual groups in the countryside as I am.

In the photo above, the reason our demeanour is somewhat less solemn than that of the transcendent arhat is because Hu Qingxue had just suggested the caption which forms the title of this post—and, incidentally, of my latest Hollywood blockbuster.** The old sheng mouth-organ was my gift to him: it had been a gift to me in the early 1990s from a village ritual association that no longer used it, and since he’s an avid hoarder and repairer of sheng, it surely belongs in his fantastic collection.

chat with HQX

There’s always so much to learn from Hu Qingxue.

It was delightful to present the group at the British Museum again on Monday. In our pre-concert discussion (with subtle prompting from Jessica Harrison-Hall, curator of the BM’s Chinese collection) I was glad to introduce the social background and wider ritual context, as well as research by a succession of fine Chinese scholars; and with the musicians, to illustrate how the skeletal notes of the gongche solfeggio score are progressively ornamented, first by singing the score in unison and then by taking up the instruments to further decorate that version in heterophony.

For someone who was brought up in a poor Hebei village, Hu Qingxue has learned to recopy the temple’s old scores rather finely:

Qingjiang yin score

Qingjiang yin, copied by Hu Qingxue.

Having learned from my tours with the Li family Daoists, I’ve now worked out a much-improved programme with the Zhihua temple too. While the shengguan ensemble is always most captivating for audiences, we now include all three elements in the ritual soundscape, chui-da-nian—in reverse order of importance: wind ensemble, percussion, and vocal liturgy. Thus the programme began with Cymbals to Open the Altar (Kaitan bo 開壇鈸), featuring the hocketing alternation of the nao and bo large cymbals that you can explore in my film on Li Manshan. It continues with the vocal hymn Yangzhi jingshui 楊枝淨水 in praise of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, also used near the beginning of a ritual—here accompanied by the melodic instruments. Then they demonstrate the process of ornamenting the skeletal notes of the score with the melody Qingjiang yin 清江引 (see photo above). After the captivating suite Jin–Wu–Shan (Jinzi jing 金字經—Wusheng fo 五聲佛—Gandongshan 感動山!) and Haiqing na tian’e 海青拿天鵝, the programme ends by reminding us of the primacy of vocal liturgy, with the a cappella hymn Qingjing fashen fo 清靜法身佛, accompanied only by the percussion.

As I am wont to observe, the blend of timbres of the shengguan instrumentation is the most perfect combo ever, alongside the jazz quintet… And the free-tempo alap-like introductions are just magical.

This overlaps with my blogposts, but here’s the full version of my programme notes:

Music of the Zhihua temple
Stephen Jones

A world away from the modern conservatoire style that now dominates the media, this music belongs as a kind of aural filigree interlaced within the vocal liturgy and percussion of lengthy rituals for funerals and temple fairs among local communities. To experience it in the concert hall or museum is a compromise, of course. It is one of many genres still performed today in a continuous tradition since the Ming – several types of regional opera, the nanguan ballads of Fujian, the music of the ubiquitous rural shawm bands, the elite qin zither.

The Zhihua temple has become a byword for the melodic instrumental music used until the 1950s as part of rituals in Beijing—mainly funerals, notably the nocturnal yankou ritual to feed the hungry ghosts. The monks of many minor temples in the hutong alleys of north and east Beijing, both Buddhist and Daoist, were available to come together to perform this music.

Built as the private temple of the court eunuch Wang Zhen in 1443, the Zhihua temple is one of the only wooden structures from the Ming dynasty to remain intact in Beijing.  After Wang Zhen was executed in 1449, the monks became part of the ritual life of the wider community, with twenty-six generations down to the 1940s.

Since then the tradition has struggled to survive. After 1949 the monks were laicized, so by 1953 when the Zhihua temple music first gained its reputation among music scholars, with influential studies from the qin zither master Zha Fuxi and the great musicologist Yang Yinliu, the monks were no longer performing rituals. Through the 1980s, as ritual life was restoring throughout the countryside, and even in cities like Shanghai, scholars like Ling Haicheng and Yuan Jingfang began attempts to revive the Beijing style, collecting the surviving former monks together.

Though the style remains the most exquisite rendition of a widespread repertoire, it is now mainly further afield that we can hear it in its ritual context – in the countryside south of the capital among amateur associations that learnt from temple monks, and among household ritual groups all over north China. The present performers hail from the poor village of Qujiaying, whose ritual association was first discovered in 1986. They were recruited while in their teens to study in the Zhihua temple with the elderly former monks, notably Benxing (1923–2009). But worthy attempts by cultural cadres have proved unable to maintain the classic Beijing style without the firm ritual base of local community support that remains common elsewhere in China.

While the more elite temple rituals use only vocal liturgy accompanied by ritual percussion, melodic instrumental music has long been commonly added for rituals among the folk. Throughout north China this takes the form of the exquisite shengguan chamber ensemble, which coalesced around the Ming. The instruments play in heterophony, each decorating the bare bones of the nuclear melody differently; the plaintive guanzi oboe leads, the sheng mouth-organ maintaining a continuous wall of sound, decorated by the halo of the yunluo (ten pitched gongs mounted in a frame) and darting ornaments from the dizi flute.

The repertoire of classic labeled melodies, combined in strict sequences in lengthy suites, was also coming together in the Ming. Since then, a kind of solfeggio called gongche has been commonly used to notate the outlines of the melodies of instrumental ensembles. Scores from several Beijing temples, of which the earliest now preserved is the 1694 score of the Zhihua temple, use a rare antique script that resembles those known from Tang and Song sources. But the bare bones of the score give few clues to the magic of performance; having learnt to sing in unison an already highly ornamented version of the nuclear melody, the performers then further decorate it in mesmerizing heterophony on the instruments. The style is exceptionally slow and solemn, the free-tempo preludes especially magical. But we have to imagine it as a decoration within the whole liturgy of the complex rituals that are still common elsewhere in China.

Further reading

  • Many articles under stephenjones.blog
  • Stephen Jones, Folk music of China: living instrumental traditions, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995 (paperback edition with CD, 1998).
  • Stephen Jones, Plucking the winds: lives of village musicians in old and new China, Leiden: CHIME Foundation, 2004 (with CD).
  • Stephen Jones, In search of the folk Daoists of north China, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2010 (Appendix 1).
  • Yuan Jingfang, Zhongguo fojiao jing yinyue yanjiu [The Buddhist capital music of China], Beijing: Zongjiao wenhua chubanshe, 2012.
  • Chang Renchun, Hongbai xishi: jiujing hunsang lisu [Wedding and funeral customs of old Beijing], Beijing: Beijing Yanshan chubanshe, 1993.

* * *

The Zhihua temple events were part of a fine ongoing series at the British Museum (see also here) that also includes flamenco, Indian music, Japanese gagaku, Stockhausen, Ligeti, Cage, and the overwhelming Metamorphosen.

And what should await me on my return home than a live broadcast of Mahler 10 with S-Simon Rattle. Without this lying xenophobic government, London could be wonderful.

* * *

A further note for stammerers, and indeed for anyone who knows any:
“Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking…”, it’s largely thanks to China that I have been gradually and belatedly chipping away at the iceberg of fear. Presenting the Li family Daoists on their foreign tours also bears fruit in my introductions to the Zhihua temple. It’s a good start to confront the event itself, but monitoring one’s speech as one goes along is another challenge: I rarely catch myself in time as I use all the habitual fruitless little avoidance techniques—backtracking, trying to get a run-up (like crashing through a hurdle), and so on. In the end, it just about works, but there’s always room for improvement: a gamut of physical and conceptual techniques is available.

 

**Cf. the alternative title for my film on Li Manshan: Four funerals and a funeral.

At home with a master Daoist

As weird holidays go, this is pretty weird…

To supplement my various articles on particular themes (a ghost village, a funeral, the murals of Artisan the Sixth, Elder Hu, and so on), this diary records the more domestic side of my recent trip chez Li Manshan—like my notes on our French tour last May, the kind of thing one hardly finds in inscrutable accounts of hallowed Daoist ritual.

As I land in Beijing, pausing only to catch up with my wonderful hosts Matt and Dom and to buy a SIM card, I take the midnight train to Yanggao—smashing my personal best time for Fastest Ever Escape From Beijing. Perhaps first you can read my updated description of my first couple of days there.

Catching up
Despite improved transport and smartphones, progress seems superficial. This is still another world from the skyscrapers and Party congresses touted by the international media. Like anywhere else in the world, indeed. And it’s hard to see evidence of greater repression—people are well used to it.

Li Manshan’s home village of Upper Liangyuan still has some over six hundred dwellers, which counts as a lot round here; but it seems forlorn, stagnant. It’s ever clearer that the rural population is “left behind”—elderly people sitting outside awaiting their turn. Litter remains an intractable problem, blighting what might almost be an idyllic landscape.

Having been worked off his feet for many years, now that Li Manshan is in his 70s he’s giving way to Li Bin, who’s busier than ever. Li Bin has three funerals to do today, one a solo attendance at the grave (“smashing the bowl”, “without scriptures”) for a Catholic family, who still need the procedures for the date and siting of the burial. On the 17th (or rather the 2nd, chu’er—I soon get used to the lunar calendar) he has to smash two more bowls.

So now Li Manshan only works nearby—decorating coffins, doing grave-sitings and visits to determine the date for burials, as well as the occasional funeral. Soon after I arrive he zooms off on his motor-bike to Yangguantun to decorate a coffin. I’m happy to try and sleep off my journey from London.

doggie

Visitors are always announced by a barking dog, like a doorbell. The Lis have a new doggie, rarely off its tether by its kennel in the courtyard. It’s frozen. When I tell Li Manshan’s wife (busy making funerary headgear) about our poncey UK winter gilets for dogs, she shrugs, “He’s fine, he’s got fur ain’t ‘e?!”

LMS wife sewing

Li Manshan’s (only) disciple Wang Ding returns from a funeral to unload the decorations for the soul hall, now improved and more convenient. Renting out this equipment to funeral families is another source of income for Li Manshan. Giving Wang Ding a hand, I tell him I wrote a little post about him after our little French tour last year; he hasn’t got internet, so he will look at my blog at Golden Noble’s place. He can speak pretty good Yangpu, but even after all these years I find their dialect as tough as ever.

I hardly bother to wear my glasses any more—like clarinetist Jack Brymer, who when rehearsing a contemporary piece would wear his for the first five minutes, and then only keep them on if he thought it was worth it…

The domestic routine
Li Manshan’s first tasks on rising are to fold the bedding, take out the chamber pot, fetch kindling for the kitchen stove and our little stove in the west room, and boil water. He does his bit with the housework: sweeping, mopping, stoking the stove, preparing water—though he leaves most of the cooking to his wife. The little coal stove is cute and effective, but mafan. At last I learn that the central foyer is called tangdi 堂地. Both living rooms are equipped with a low wooden table, actually rather handsome but covered in plastic, to place on the kang, used for meals and writing. Plastic rules OK—and a jolly good thing too.

meal

Our diet consists mainly of baozi dumplings, [1] noodles, crêpes, mushrooms, eggs, bits of meat, meatballs, doufu, cabbage, nuts. Sometimes our meals evoke the classic film Yellow Earth—indelible image of the fieldworker overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of poverty and traditional culture. But we giggle a lot too.

Again Li Manshan stresses how much he prefers country life. I soon get used again to its basic routines, not least visits to the latrine in the southwest corner of the courtyard—taking paper (The Thoughts of Uncle Xi would be useful, but it’s not to hand/arse), and a torch if dark, to balance on a ledge; adjusting trousers, squatting (not getting any easier)…

Amazingly, for my visit in autumn 2013 Li Manshan modified his old latrine, building a little roofed pier (so to speak) over a floor on pillars projecting from the spacious pit. Like the world, it was built in seven days. After designing it on paper, he borrowed 230 bricks, as well as stone slabs, tiles, and so on, from neighbours; then he got down and dirty over a week at the height of summer. I felt embarrassed, but he pointed out that it would be good for them too.

We refer to it as The London Embassy (Lundun dashiguan, pronounced like “Taking turns to squat in the big shithouse”). The great Beijing cultural pundit Tian Qing even bestowed his illustrious calligraphy on Li Manshan, albeit in the more polite version.

So (thanks to me) the latrine is pretty comfortable, but it makes a suitable image to imagine the poverty of the olden days (including the Maoist era—a sobering contrast with the bright propaganda posters of the time): the old and infirm trudging to an open pit in the snow, with no paper, no sanitary products, no torches in the dark.

I’m so pampered, compared to Li Manshan’s lifetime “enduring suffering” (shouku 受苦). From my book (pp.132–3):

Shoulders unable to carry, hands unable to grasp, soft and sensitive skin…

Coming across this phrase in 2013 as I made inept attempts to help Li Manshan with the autumn harvest, I thought it might have been coined to parody my efforts. Rather, it’s a standard expression used to describe the travails of urban “educated youth” in performing physical labour after being sent down from the cities to the countryside in the Cultural Revolution to “learn from the peasants”. The experience was a rude shock for such groups all over China; brought up in relatively comfortable urban schools to believe in the benefits of socialism, and often protected from understanding the tribulations of their own parents, they were now confronted not just by the harshness of physical labour, but by medieval poverty.

Li Manshan is thrilled with my little gift of a set of UK coins, working out which is which. He proudly offers me a black banana, white and tasty on the inside, but decides to eat it himself; we have a giggle over glossy modernized bananas (cf. “banana republic, but minus the bananas”). His wife passes the time by playing “matching pairs”, a kind of dominoes. A female friend of hers drops by for a chat. They’re all very humorous, beneath a somewhat dour exterior. Li Manshan and his wife seem like counsellors.

In reply to villagers’ curious enquiries about how many kids I have, Li Manshan is now in the habit of replying wu, which they hear as “five” 五 but in his creative head means “none” 无. This surprisingly shuts them up—I worry about having to embroider stories about their careers, my numerous grandkids, and so on, but no. Anyway, Li Manshan would be up for this. He observes that since my surname is Zhong 钟 (Clock), my son might be named Biao 表 (watch).

We share a nice supper of noodles, and more dumplings. The CCTV evening news is on as wallpaper [Breaking news! CCP holds meeting! Xi Jinping still in power! Old gits in suits dead bored!]. It’s ignored until the weather forecast comes on, but Li Manshan loves the nature programmes.

“Wotcha doing when you get back to Beijing?”, he goes.
“I’m going to be giving lectures (jiangke)…”
His local dialect, or his lively mind, instantly converts this to jiekastammering”:
“Old Jonesy, you don’t have to go back to Beijing to stammer—you can just keep on stammering away here!”

I manage both.

Writing
Though Li Manshan is doing fewer funerals these days, he has always got ritual paperwork to do—whether it’s writing talismans, shaping paper for funerary artefacts, or writing mottos for the soul hall (my book, pp.194–200).

He’s bought big reams of thick paper from Yangyuan county. He recalls that when Li Qing recopied the ritual manuals in the early 1980s, mazhi hemp paper was available from the Supply and Marketing Co-op.

One day our siesta is disturbed by a group coming to ask Li Manshan to “determine the date”. After seeing them off he spends the rest of the afternoon writing several dozen sets of four-character funerary diaolian mottos for the soul hall (my film, from 10.43)—enough for a couple of months. Again he recalls how Li Qing used to write them in the scripture hall for each particular funeral. I devise a new game: arranging the squares in a different order to make a popular phrase or saying. For starters, how about 東方妙,西方福 (“oriental mysticism is all very well, but things are kinda cushy over here”).

A trip into town
One morning we call up the wonderful Li Jin to arrange a nice quiet lunch in town, just the three of us. Li Manshan’s wife chooses a posh shirt and jacket for him.

In 1953, when he was 8 sui, Li Manshan walked into town with his auntie to see the big xiangong parade there. Now we walk up to the main road to catch the No.2 bus into town; it arrives soon, a mere 3 kuai each, taking under half an hour—fun, and good to be independent. I go to have my head shaved at my favourite barbershop, and we meet up with Li Jin at Li Bin’s funeral shop. But then Li Manshan’s (much) younger brother Third Tiger shows up too, and he drives us in his posh car to a posh restaurant (attached to a posh hotel) up a little hutong, with no sign (which is always a good, um, sign)—we’re the only customers. But then entrepreneur Ye Lin (another old mate, formerly head of the Bureau of Culture) arrives too, and Li Bin; so altogether it’s less of a quiet meal than I hoped.

lunch LJ LB LMS

lunch Sanhu

Third Tiger has brought a case of Chilean 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon from Central Valley, a gift from a friend. We polish it off, though later the ganbei toasting seems a bit unsuitable…

Third Tiger had been looking forward to early retirement from his important state job—even claiming in my film (from 55.23) that he’d like to get back to Daoist ritual—but it won’t be happening any time soon. He’s done well as a Party cadre, his only flaw being that he can’t really hold his drink—this should surely be the first question on the application form:

How much baijiu liquor can you knock back before you fall over?

Inevitably Third Tiger foots the bill. I remind my companions of the donkey joke—I’m inadvertently “cadging a free meal wherever I go” again…

After lunch, Li Bin takes us on a fruitless visit to the Cultural Preservation Bureau to learn that the compilation of Yanggao temple steles is still not published. Then we drop in on a shop up the road to sort out a standoff between my camera and my Mac; the guy is even more pissed than me, but does a fine job. We exchange cigarettes, and he refuses any money.

Li Bin is happy to take us home to Upper Liangyuan, and on the way we drop in on the grandson of the great Li Peisen at his funeral shop, to see if he can show us the three manuals not in Li Qing’s collection, which I didn’t copy. He and his wife seem affable, but he can’t find them. It’s hard to know if he’s being cagey: he does show Li Manshan Li Peisen’s thick Yuqie yankou volume, so maybe he really can’t find the others. I ask him, without much hope, to call Li Bin if he does find them. Li Manshan cares more about this than I do.

I’ve also been wondering if the related Wang lineage in Baideng has any ritual manuals we haven’t seen, but when Li Manshan calls up Wang Fei there, he says they have no more than him.

More Heritage flapdoodle
Next to the main sign above his funerary shop, Li Bin has optimistically put up a new sign: “Hengshan Daoist Music, Training Base”.

HSDYT shop placard

This pie-in-the-sky still has precisely no takers, but Li Bin remains involved in a mysterious project with the county Bureau of Culture. We all laugh at the emptiness of the title—but it acts like a protective talisman, a kind of insurance policy.

Pacing the Void: Old Lord Li gets online
Like me, Li Manshan got his first smartphone after returning from France last year. He can read WeChat messages, but hasn’t cared to try and get online—yet. I think he can do it. Actually, WeChat doesn’t seem such a big deal here—sure, the younger people are on it, but the main way of communicating is just phoning. So there.

Getting online with my Mac thanks to the wifi of Li Manshan’s cool shepherd neighbour, I show him the charming TV version of The Dream of the Red Chamber with child actors. He loved reading the novel in the 1980s.

I give him a guided tour of my blog, starting with the posts I wrote about our French tour last year (e.g. here), my tribute to his carpentry skills, and the trio on Women of Yanggao (starting here). We look further at the ritual paintings in Li Peisen’s collection, which leads us to seek murals by Artisan the Sixth.

Then I introduce him to my other world, telling him about Yuan QuanyouHildi, and the 80th-birthday party for the great Stephan Feuchtwang where Rowan and I played Bach on erhu and sanxian—after listening to the recording there (now also sounding crap), I try to attone by playing him Sun Huang’s astounding Saint-Saens (or Sage Mulberry, as he’s known in China), but he’s underwhelmed—the conservatoire erhu is of even less relevance to him than to me. And he’s none too clear about the qin zither, despite painting it regularly on coffins (my film, from 18.30).

LMS huacai

Li Manshan decorates a coffin, 2013. Top: qin zither.

I tell him again about the adorable crazy Natasha, showing him my tribute to her—it was he who helped me regain the will to live after her death in 2013.

Over the next few days Old Lord Li becomes ever more scholarly, devouring the new book on the modern history of the county (only up to 1949, alas!), the gazetteer, and all the online stuff I show him. (You may note that he has reverted to his old hat—was the baseball cap he wore in France a haute-couture choice to impress the laowai?!)

He gets into Ming reign-periods online. I show him the Baidu article on the 1449 Tumu incident (very near Yanggao), making the link with the disgraced palace eunuch Wang Zhen and the Zhihua temple. As he gets hooked on some pre-Tang story in the county gazetteer, I turn the tables on him, commenting “I dunno about that, I wasn’t even born then!”

As he gets used to scrolling on my Mac keypad, I show him the blurb for the Chinese introduction to the already-voluminous Daojiao yishi congshu series, which he reads carefully. When I show him Hannibal Taubes’ amazing site, he thinks that Yanggao temple murals are not so well preserved as those of Yuxian—but I suspect it could also be that Hannibal is really on the case.

I tell Li Manshan of the useful saying “When the rites are lost, seek throughout the countryside”, which is always a succinct way of explaining what we’re doing traipsing around poor villages.

On my blog he’s interested to pore over ritual manuals from other areas. I find an online text for the pseudo-Sanskrit mantra Pu’an zhou, which they never sang, only played on shengguan. When we listen to my recording of Ma yulang with the Gaoluo ritual association (playlist, track 10, with commentary here), he’s shocked at how crap they are! I explain that they’re an amateur group, not like our occupational Daoists working together daily. But he’s curious to learn if the piece is similar to their version, a question I haven’t yet addressed.

We discuss the Kangxi yun section in the hymn volume that Li Qing recopied in 1980—I’ve often wondered what it’s doing there, as part of a series of shuowen solo recitations formerly used for shanggong Presenting Offerings. It was actually written not by the Kangxi emperor but by his father Shunzhi.

Kangxi yunAs we read up further, we now speculate that since Kangxi saw the poem on a visit to Wutaishan, and as Buddhist ritual manuals do contain poems, it could have got into one such manual there; spreading further north, it might thence have got into Daoist manuals too—which, after all, contain plenty of Buddhist elements (my book, e.g. p.226).

I wonder if the title Kangxi yun is distinctive to the Li family. If Li Fu copied it from the manuals of his master in Jinjiazhuang, it wouldn’t have been at all old when it was copied by the Zhang family Daoists there. More work for a historian there… Li Manshan buries himself in the Baidu articles on Shunzhi’s mother and Nurhaci.

He knows nothing of Trump, Syria, or the Ukraine famine. While envying him his blissful ignorance, I embark on a political education session; he reads avidly when I show him the relevant Baidu articles. The article on the Ukraine famine looks rather good—though one can hardly expect Baidu to compare it to the Chinese famine following the Great Leap Backward.

After returning from a brief trip to Waterdrop 滴滴水 village with Li Bin, I check the 1948 and 1990 population statistics (first two columns below) in the county gazetteer, but they seem incongruous. Old Lord Li inspects the table for the whole of Zhangguantun district and deftly corrects them. Clever guy!

renkou edits

Born at a different time in another place, Li Manshan might have become a university professor.

2nd moon 28th
As yet another idée fixe in Airplane goes, “Looks like I picked the wrong day to” get my head shaved—it’s really rather cold. Li Manshan kept reading till late last night. We stay home for a study day. He does another prescription by phone.

Before midday a couple comes for a prescription about her illness. They’ve come all the way from Datong county, learning of his reputation on the grapevine. Sure, people may also consult mediums, and of course hospitals—the latter terribly expensive, but as Li Manshan observes, their best bet.

LMS krz

The mood is serious as ever when the wife throws the coins and Li Manshan writes down the results. They watch him work it all out, in silence; then she asks questions, the conversation deepening. Li Manshan feels his role (often) is to console them, to lend moral support. As he later tells me, in fact the prescription looks ominous, and mostly he trusts the coins, but he can’t tell them “You’ve had it”, can he? They persuade the couple to stay for lunch (baozi dumplings, cabbage and doufu, onions), washed down at the end with water from the pot. It’s a friendly and sincere scene. They only paid him with five cigarettes, and Li Manshan was fine with that.

Li Manshan’s siesta is devoted to further reading, and he’s only just nodded off when another guy comes for a prescription.

Another great supper—thick-sliced noodles with eggs, dunking meatballs in the broth. Li Manshan glances over at the news, nudging me. Some Party bigwig is being interviewed, the caption reading:

中国人大代表 Zhongguo Renda daibiao
Representative of the Chinese People’s Congress,

which he brilliantly converts from three binomes into

中国人,大代表 Zhongguoren dadabiao
Chinese bloke, big cheese.

We fall about laughing. I just love the way this man’s mind works! The following week I’m showing my film at People’s University in Beijing, which is also abbreviated as Renda—so I manage to press the expression into service there.

I clean my teeth in the courtyard, enjoying using my fancy electric Rabbits Don’t Shit, sorry I mean toothbrush (its first outing in China). Since Li Manshan always shoves a fag in my gob as soon as I get back anyway, I beat him to the draw. Whenever I spot an unfamiliar brand, I ask him, “Landlord? Poor peasant?”

3rd moon 1st (chuyi)—which, I note guiltily, is Saturday.

courtyard in snow

Right: sunflower stalks stored for use in making funerary treasuries.

OOH it’s snowing! I’ve been hoping to go in search of more Daoists to Yingxian county with Li Bin and bright young Taiyuan ethnographer Liu Yan, but my carefully laid plans come to nought; the motorways are closed. Li Manshan sweeps the pathway to the latrine, then zooms off back to Yangguantun to smash the bowl in a simple burial for the poor family there. When he decorated the coffin on 2nd moon 25th it was the fourth (not third) day after the death. He explains that there’s no difference between rich and poor in determining the date: it may turn out that poor families also have to store the coffin for over twenty days.

I discreetly perform much-needed ablutions. Li Manshan comes home frozen, unable to see through the snowstorm on his motor-bike. Gradually it eases up.

I show him my photos of the funeral I attended yesterday. He’s always been a laissez-faire leader, but even he draws the line at Wu Mei playing drum while on his mobile. We get a riff going:

“Maybe he was following the drum patterns online?!” he jokes.
“Oh yeah, right—I always felt sorry the so-called Hengshan Daoist Music Ensemble because they were too poor to afford music stands, but now they can read from their mobiles! You’re dead keen on ‘development’, aren’t you?!”
—referencing the rose-tinted cliché common in online articles about him.
“Naughty disciple!”
“Naughty master! 青出于蓝。。。”

Wang Ding turns up on his dinky sanlun truck and we help him unload more altar decorations into the south room of the courtyard, redecorated as the village Training Base of the so-called Hengshan Daoist Music Ensemble—and thus, like its town counterpart, entirely unused.

3rd moon 2nd (Sunday, known as libai ba, eighth day of the week, as on their electronic wall-clock)
Foggy at first, gradually the sun comes out. For the first time Li Manshan worries about his cough, and resolves to quit smoking—which, impressively, he manages for nearly a whole hour. Actually he’s not smoking as much as in the old days when he was busy doing funerals with the band.

Having taken a siesta after our fascinating excursion to find murals by Artisan the Sixth, I go outside to clean my teeth, but yet again my oral hygiene is thwarted by the arrival of “Fag Devil” Li Sheng, who insistently shoves a fag in my gob. Typical

I keep up with Tweety McTangerine’s latest lunacies by consulting the Guardian online. But I dissolve in fits of laughter at Stewart Lee’s latest offering there.

3rd moon 3rd
At 7am a guy comes to discuss some work. At 8.20 the formidable wife of an old friend of Li Qing’s comes to moan about her son’s marital problems. Li Manshan is courteous, but considers her “crazy”. I understand virtually nothing, but eventually she makes an effort with me as she pours out her grievances, slapping me regularly on the arm. Village poverty and problems seem intractable, despite advances and propaganda. The only solution touted is thorough urbanization, bringing its own worrying prospects.

Li Manshan isn’t feeling too well, but he takes a break from making paper artefacts to accompany me on a visit to the temple to Elder Hu in the Lower village (post coming up soon!).

3rd moon 4th
On our last day together, after returning from an intriguing trip to Jinjiazhuang, Old Lord Li suddenly thinks of the slow hymn Yong guiyi 永皈依, and we have a nice session on it. It’s one of his favourites, but they rarely use it, and now he can’t remember the opening. He can’t read cipher notation, only gongche solfeggio, so he gets me to sing it from Li Qing’s cipher-notation score. Their more recent green volume has gongche solfeggio underneath too, so he can just about follow it once I get him going.

Yong guiyi textSo Li Manshan gets to record me singing a piece I barely know, but I never get to record him. Anyway he always sets off from a really low pitch, so the result tends to sound a bit like Tibetan chanting. When the band sings a cappella hymns for funerals, Golden Noble has a good ear for starting off on a pitch suitable for the range.

In the version they learned, the first section ends after Fo you Niepan shi 佛有涅槃时. Li Qing’s cipher-notation score isn’t divided into sections, but their more recent green volume is. The latter uses the degree shang 上 as do—including the shengguan suites, which I find strange. Li Manshan is fine once he gets through the opening phrase.

Yong guiyi jianpu

We take a siesta before my journey back to Beijing, but soon wake up. Absurdly, he now asks me to transpose Li Qing’s cipher-notation score of the major shengguan melody Yaozhang into gongche solfeggio. Without thinking to consult the precious photos of Li Derong’s old score (which Li Manshan no longer has) I wrongly assume that it would use the early shengguan system with he 合 as do, but hey. After singing it for him as he records it on his phone, I explain to him that he’ll need earphones to play it back…

Li Bin has another busy day today, having to do two reburials as well as decorating a coffin, so I’ll take a cab to the station. This no longer feels so distant. Li Manshan insists on coming along to see me off, and we leave before 4, dropping his wife off at Baideng township for a hairdo. He refuses to let me pay for the cab. My total expenses for nine inspiring days in Yanggao came to 24 kuai—just over £2.

We take the ring road, passing loads of new high-rises, and bid each other a fond farewell. The station is virtually empty, and the train isn’t busy either.

Back in Beijing, I feel like a country bumpkin. Showing my film three times over the next week, I’m happy to make Li Manshan a big star there. After the last screening I call him up to report, and to wish him well before I go back to London.

 

[1] As in the celebrated line (Fieldworkers’ joke manual No.37):
“I learned the Four Classics and Five Scriptures—Confucius, Mencius, various dumpling shapes, I’ve studied them all!”
Wo xuedeshi sishu wujing—Kongzi Mengzi baozi jiaozi, dou xueguole!
我学的是四书五经。孔子孟子包子饺子,都学过了!
Oh well, it’s funny in Chinese—Trust Me I’m a Doctor (there goes another 200 kuai).

In search of temples—and another Daoist lineage

* This is the latest in a series of vignettes (starting here) from my recent stay with
the wonderful Li Manshan 
(for similar excursion, see here and here*

Jinzhuang LWM

“Nothing to see here—move along please.”

The still-extant main gateway, main hall, and music tower date from the Ming and Qing, occupying 800 square metres. The main hall is three rooms wide, two rooms deep, with single eaves and a “hard-mountain” vaulted roof 单檐硬山顶. Most of the murals have been covered over in mud, and some are exposed to the elements.

That’s the enticing account in the 1993 Yanggao county gazetteer article on the Dragon King temple (Longwang miao) of Jinjiazhuang village, west of Li Manshan’s home in Upper Liangyuan. [1] Even if the temple was now in poor repair, I was keen to see it. Besides, I’ve always meant to make a pilgrimage to this village, where Li Manshan’s ancestor Li Fu began learning Daoist ritual in the 18th century (my book, pp.71–3).

Over the years, whenever I ask Li Manshan about the temple, he merely shrugs—nothing left there, he says (and he should know). Still, now that he’s getting ever deeper into local history, I finally show him the passage in the gazetteer, and he quite sees why I’m curious, deciding that we should make a trip over to Jinjiazhuang the next day.

On my last morning with Li Manshan he is already up and busy when I awake at 6. After breakfast he fields yet another call asking him for a burial date (my book, pp.186–9), and then he asks his nice cab-driving neighbour to take us over to Jinjiazhuang in his posh new car, bought last year. Unusually, our driver can even talk standard Chinese—though when he and Li Manshan talk among themselves it might as well be Swahili.

Heading northwest, we reach Jinjiazhuang soon after passing under an elevated section of the new high-speed train line. First we check out the Temple to the Perfect Warrior (Zhenwu miao)—small but perfectly formed, in a typical elevated position (cf. Hannibal Taubes’s photo from nearby Yuxian) in what is now the midst of the village. [2]

Jinzhuang ZWM

A friendly woman fetches the keys for us to take a look inside. The interior has recently-made statues and murals, and seems to be “in use”—though of course, such temples are too small to hold temple fairs.

(left) central altar: The Perfect Warrior flanked by attendants;
(right) mural on the east wall, with the Great Lords of the Three Primes.

This affords me scant consolation for finding not the slightest trace of the famous Dragon King Temple; nor, indeed, of the Temple to the Perfect Warrior in Upper Liangyuan (cf. Li Manshan’s map of his village, and our film, from 8.18).

SLY ZWM site

Another reason why Hannibal Taubes is jolly clever: derelict site of the Temple to the Perfect Warrior in Upper Liangyuan. My photo, 2018.

Then to the site of the celebrated Dragon King Temple, which now turns out to be a drab concrete plaza (see photo at top of page). Even more distressingly, the temple was still standing until twenty years ago; so at least the county gazetteer wasn’t making it up. We meet an old guy who recalls it, and had seen an old stele, long vanished—but he’s illiterate, so he had no idea what it said.

What I don’t get is this. OK, the temple had probably been becoming more and more decrepit for many decades, but if it merited an entry in the 1993 county gazetteer (which not even the Lower Liangyuan temple did, for instance), then why would they demolish it in 1998? By then the county authorities should even have been nominating it for preservation; but even if not, you might think the villagers themselves would see its value (whether for their own culture or—if they had a modicum of canny foresight—as a tourist attraction). But I recall how in Upper Liangyuan no-one cared much about our discovery of the two old steles there (my book, pp.46–9): as young people leave, these villages have long lacked a sense of community, and there is little concern for old buildings.

Another Daoist lineage
While we’re chatting with locals at the magnificent Ming temple—or rather, drab concrete plaza—the village yinyang Zhang Nan (b.1956) shows up, and invites us over to his clean and spacious house for a chat. He’s great; of course Li Manshan has known him for ages, and as usual gets along well with him; our driver is good company too. On our way home they comment that Zhang has a slight stammer; I was so busy stammering myself that I didn’t even notice.

Zhang Nan and LMS

Zhang Nan with Li Manshan.

The Zhang lineage moved here from Hongtong in the early Ming, like the Lis (my book, pp.70–71) and so many others all over north China. Zhang Nan knows of seven generations of yinyang before him (as ever, note the alternation of single and double given names):

  • 1st generation: Lianzhu 連珠
  • 2nd generation: Kui 奎
  • 3rd generation: Wenbing 文炳
  • 4th generation: Bi 弼
  • 5th generation: Deheng 德恆
  • 6th generation: Mei 美
  • 7th generation: Jincheng 進成
  • 8th generation: Nan 楠

Right down to his grandfather his forebears were all performing Daoists, but his father only did kanrizi divination, as does Zhang Nan himself. With more time we might have elicited further names from earlier generations—brothers, cousins, and other disciples.

Assuming that Li Fu (first of nine generations in our Li family of Upper Liangyuan) would have learned ritual from a Daoist family that already had a tradition of at least a few generations, then “first-generation” Zhang Lianzhu must have had still earlier Daoist forebears. So this would make the Zhangs of Jinjiazhuang the longest Daoist lineage that we know of in Yanggao. And where did they learn?!

Though short of revelatory, our excursion to Jinjiazhuang made a good way to spend my last day with Li Manshan—not entirely a wild goose chase.

 

[1] The gazetteer entry appears not under Temples (miaoyu 庙宇) but under the “Ancient architecture” (gu jianzhu 古建筑) section of Cultural artefacts (wenwu 文物, pp.475–6)—a section that includes the Temple to Elder Hu at Xujiayuan but, strangely, not its sister temple at Lower Liangyuan (on which more soon).
[2] Cf. Willem A. Grootaers, “The hagiography of the Chinese god Chen-wu (The transmission of rural traditions in Chahar)”, Folklore studies 11.2 (1952), pp.139-181, and perceptive updates from Hannibal.

 

Stammering games

stammering stan
John Cleese’s feigned patience with Michael Palin’s imp-p-pediment in A fish called Wanda reminds me that it’s hard for people to know how to react to a stammerer.

Stammering is stressful for both sufferers and their audience, meriting understanding and ongoing research; but alleviating all-round embarrassment, humour can help defuse tension. The experts’ advice to friends is not to try and supply the word for the stammerer, but sometimes when people can’t resist, I may find they’ve suggested a more interesting word than the trite predictable one that I’m actually wrestling with. So I go with it, following their word up with a revised phrase that seems to work—until I meet my next block; when they supply another promising word, I keep going with a further logical sequence… Thus I become a kind of puppet, almost a psychiatrist, for my interlocutor’s free-floating word associations.

Here’s another fun party game to while away those longueurs while I’m stuck on a knotty c-c-consonant. I arrange in advance with my friends that they should choose a special subject—French baroque composers, feminist thinkers 1900–1960, Premier League football teams, take your pick.* This works best in a group, where everyone has their own subject. When I’m floundering on a difficult w-w-word, if they can think of one within their subject before I get my word out, then they win a p-p-point. Thus:

When I’m floundering on a difficult w-w-
West Ham!
if they can think of one within their subject before I get my word out, then they win a p-p-
Pankhurst!

Indeed, if you see potential in an initial consonant on which you don’t necessarily feel an impending block, you can even manufacture one—experimenting with deliberate stammering is one tool that therapists use to help stammerers experience control over their voice. Since we spend our whole lives desperately trying to avoid stammering, to allow ourselves to do so (and then modify it) can come as an amazing relief—though it’s not a panacea.

Like my fantasy Daoist ritual game, hours of fun for all the family.

 

*This is somewhat different from the old party game of “Name three 19th-century composers who didn’t die of syphilis.”