About Me

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I lead workshops at the British Library, on literature, language, art, history, and the culture of the book. Author of Discovering Words, Discovering Words in the Kitchen, Evolving English Explored, Team Talk - sporting words & their origins, Trench Talk - the Language of the First World War (with Peter Doyle); How to Cure the Plague; The Finishing Touch. As an artist I work in performance, public engagement, and intervention using drawing, curating, text, changing things and embroidery.


Wednesday, 3 December 2014

On selling our children's toys

We have had a busy few weeks selling our teenage sons’ toys. This sounds callous and mean, but the money goes to them, and they will no doubt spend it on things that will bring them transitory enjoyment, and then be put away and forgotten, and possibly sold. That ‘well-known internet auction site’ does provide a relief to the despair we have felt at the awful amassing of goods: we buy, we hold, we pass on, almost as if we leased the toys, and the opportunities they afford to explore stories, from some greater concept – time, life, western culture.

A couple of days ago I went to the post office and consigned a parcel to the post. The toys – a Playmobil jungle set, including rocks, animals, trees, and figures who were meant to be white European explorers and vaguely southern African indigenous people – were made in Germany (which is why they were well-designed, and why they have lasted without breaking); they were bought by a bidder in Canada from me in the UK, and sent to Japan, thus encompassing countries in four continents. It is indeed a global phenomenon of play and mobility. All in all I believe it to be a good thing.

And yet I feel  little uneasy at this particular image that I have peddled on. The white explorers wearing clothes reminiscent of Indiana Jones will continue to explore, facing dangers including crocodiles lurking beneath a bridge with two intentionally broken planks, all the while maintaining the famous Playmobil noselessness and rictus smile. They will meet black people dressed in skirts made from colourful feathers, foliage and leopard-skins, holding spears or banging on drums, smiling, always smiling. Bright birds will sit securely on bright trees while bright snakes woven into coils will sit or swim beside bright lily-pads. An unexplained figure, part fetish part scarecrow will face, across the safely ricketty bridge, a monolith showing unexplained marks referring to an earlier culture, now hidden by a clip-on shower of bright green plants. If the play in any way follows what happened in our house, their meeting will involve surprise, suspicion, conflict, being taken apart, put back together, and ending up in a box under a bed or on top of a wardrobe. The story may be developed (in our case they became involved with pirates and spacemen). The settings will change. Maybe one of the black men will get a white shift and a leopard-skin, and kneel before a young white lady wearing a white crinoline with an extravagant blue sash and a discreet gold tiara with a white ostrich feather, as she hands him a hefty Bible. Maybe there will be a tall white gentleman in a red uniform, and three other figures discreetly shadowy in the background. Of course they will be smiling, but what will they be thinking?

Key in the words ‘explorer’ or ‘jungle’ in the search box on the Playmobil website, and you won’t find the bridge or the drummers or the smiling spear-holders; you’ll see a safari jeep and plenty of animals but not this particular meeting of people of different cultures all smiling that Tony Blair smile. Playmobil has moved on, though for £135 you can replay another smiling meeting of cultures symbolised by a ‘Native American camp with totem pole’ and ‘Western Fort’. The thing about Playmobil is that it is so well made that it will last for a long, long time.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Some initial thoughts about the symposium ‘An Eye and an Ear for Conflict’ at Reading University, 12 November 2014

Looking for a link between the various forms of visual representation of conflict considered in the papers given by Paul Gough, George Butler and Lisa Purse, I found myself thinking about a continuum that stretched from painting, through drawing, photography, and phone-cam video, to CCTV. We did not really consider the place of the most impersonal of visual surveying formats – CCTV, and various forms of geo-surveying such as street-view or satellite physical representation, all of which depend on a human framing process creating a gaze. However, the relationship of all of these media/formats to concepts of ‘truth’, ‘authenticity’, ‘reality’, lying within some kind of constructed impersonality, hangs over all of these.

The ultimate purpose of armed conflict in territorial terms, and in hearts and minds terms, is to create an absence. An absence of the body of the enemy, by whatever means necessary (after which '"we" can go home' - and thus also vacate the space), or an absence of the ideology that conflicts with that of the protagonist. Absence in the empty spaces in the drawings of George Butler, and in the rapidly vacated streets in the film clips we looked at of fictional films set in current Iraq, reflect this aspect of war. In this light, the First World War paintings of Paul Nash, criticised by some for the absence of the human, appear to me to direct the gaze at the core of armed conflict, the landscape that is not just empty, but emptied. They match Nash’s description of the country as ‘unspeakable’ and ‘utterly undescribable’ – what these words do is utter the absence of words. Absence is a trope we find again and again, in First World War soldiers’ inability or unwillingness to describe the situation (see Private W Kirk’s words in yesterday’s post), in veterans’ inability and unwillingness to talk about their experiences to the other (the non-combatant) after the war, and in the empty spaces at the core of so many major war memorials (all of these are explored further in the afterword of Trench Talk).    

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

"I think I have done my bit"

In a letter sent to the Daily Mail and published on 26 November 1914, Private W Kirk, of the 1st Bedford Regiment, wrote that:

 Our regiment has suffered a lot, but they are sticking to it. They want men to relieve them. I cannot describe what it is like out there, but you can guess by these figures. Our 1st Battalion has been in seven engagements, and reinforced three times with over 100 men each time. It started with 1,200, and has now got 400 and 3 officers left. The 2nd Battalion started with 1,200 and has 300 men and 3 officers left. Other regiments are worse off than us. Great Britain will want all the men she can get, for it's a long way to Germany.

It is curious that he says that 'he cannot describe what it is like out there', and then makes figures allow the reader to 'guess' - the figures do of course 'describe' very well. In the use of scientific 'describing', they tell us what war is, and what this war fundamentally is - the loss, by killing, of men. But the recognition of the inability of those who had experienced the war to actually put the experience into words appears very early.

The London Scottish were on our left when they got shelled advancing up the roadway. I have lost all my mates now, and could cry when I think of the good men mowed down. I don't think I shall go out any more, according to the doctor. I think I have done my bit.

Did the doctor decide that Private Kirk had done his bit? We don't know from this letter why he was in hospital - it is possible that Private W Kirk survived the war. Three soldiers named W Kirk are listed among the CWGC dead from the First World War, one who served in the RAMC and the other two in Scottish regiments. Was he ever able to 'describe what it [was] like out there', and did this help with the grief and loss that he was clearly suffering in November 1914? Or did it remain, as it did for so many former soldiers, 'something he never talked about'?

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Army slang during the Afghan campaign - the 'Times' article and others

A few thoughts about the Times article on army slang during the Afghan campaign; as the paywall seems to have tumbled, you can now read this article online http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/news/uk/article4254437.ece

Initially I was asked to comment on the BBC web article http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-29757988 and how it related to slang from the First World War. The article certainly contained much of interest, and there are indeed links to slang during the Great War.

David Brown’s Times article looks at the similarities over time between terms for bombs – ‘whizz bang’ and IED; fancy dressers - ‘K-nut’ and ‘Ally’; medics - ‘MERTS’ and ‘VADS’. Perhaps every conflict produces its own slang, reactive to the environment and the language of those caught up in it. The more the civilian population are involved, the more likely they are to pick up, and contribute, terms used by service personnel. Did many new terms emerge from the Korean War? – probably not. War reporting over the past hundred years has spread across new media as they have become available, but in terms of frequency of contact between home and front digital technology there is probably not a vast difference between texts and emails flying through cyberspace now and the daily letters and postcards crossing the Channel in 1917 (around 15,000 bags of mail daily in either direction).

I was immediately struck by the name ‘Butlins’ being given to Camp Bastion. A great term, in that it combines a certain contempt with some fondness. And Lashkar Gah becoming ‘Lash Vegas’ is of a pattern with Ypres becoming Wipers and Ploegsteert becoming Plugstreet. I hope more place-name anglicisations emerge. I must confess to pitching the term ‘slanglicisation’ for this process (during the phone interview I had with the Times reporter, David Brown, this got a bit mangled – no doubt a repetition of what happened several times during the 1914-18 conflict).

The same kinds of terms become war slang in the two conflicts – names for fancy dressers, acronyms for army units, disparaging names for units of the same army. In the early-twentieth-century Royal Navy an ineffective sailor was called ‘a soldier’. There is the feeling of a vast semantic hinterland behind this brief and economic term.

In another web article http://patrickcox.wordpress.com/2014/10/31/how-the-wars-in-afghanistan-and-iraq-have-shaped-military-slang/ Patrick Hennessey proposes that the use of ‘Terry’ as an adjunct to ‘Taliban’, personifying the enemy, belittles the enemy.

If some of those names sound oddly light-hearted, writer Patrick Hennessy, a former army captain, says that shouldn’t be a surprise. “The British Army has a particular tradition of black humor,” he says. “It’s much easier to fight someone if they are an object of ridicule than if they are an object of fear. The tendency towards something like ‘Terry’ is not intended to humanize the enemy — quite often the opposite.”

Terry has overtones of Jerry, the sarcastic name British soldiers used for German forces during the world wars. Giving a foreign enemy a banal, suburban British name helped Brits — who were similarly, maybe ironically, nicknamed “Tommies” during World War I — psychologically cut their opponents down to size.

Hennessy says he still has a fondness for Terry, at least as a name if not as an adversary. “There’s a famous comedian called Terry Thomas [in Britain] who was a bit of a ridiculous clown,” he explains. “I always loved the fact that the nickname we came up with was more ridiculous than threatening.”
While ‘Terry Taliban’ may ridicule him – certainly the name is totally inappropriate for the culture – I would like to propose another view, that it owes more to the appropriateness of sounds. It has alliteration, which English has enjoyed for well over a thousand years, combined with a stressed rhythm that English seems to enjoy – ‘Happy Holidays!’, ‘jumping jellybeans’. In fact considering the alternatives – Tony Taliban (too Italian), Tommy Taliban (no way, too strong an association with British soldiers), Timmy Taliban (maybe too childlike?), Trevor Taliban, Tarquin Taliban, (er, no) – there doesn’t seem to be much choice. The shortening to just ‘Terry’ follows a slang pattern that is seen, for example, in cockney rhyming slang.

When these combinations work, they stick, whatever their resonances, sources or implications. ‘Terry Taliban’ may ridicule or individualise, but primarily it works because, like mud, it sticks, in a way that ‘Frank Taliban’ or ‘Joe Taliban’, I think, would not. I certainly agree that the British Army has a tradition of  black humour, as Patrick Hennessy states, but it is not particular to the British army. The German army during the First World War had a whole arsenal of self-diminishing terms that they aimed at themselves, while the French, well, Eric Partridge sums up the specialities of the three most well-known languages of the Western Front by saying that when describing those officers who directed the lives and deaths of soldiers ‘French [was] the most biting, German the most pessimistic, and English the most tolerantly contemptuous’ (Words, Words, Words 1933). While the English-speaking soldiers had ‘Fritz’ and ‘Jerry’, they had also ‘Sammy’, ‘Jock’, ‘Taffy’, ‘Digger’ and ‘Tommy’, names that show the soldier as an individual, recognised as being an individual, and not just the impersonal ‘Hun’, ‘Boche’ or ‘Englander’. Above all, these, as slang terms, carry what all slang terms carry, the implication of the speaker being one of an exclusive group who know something.  

Patrick Hennessy clearly has the advantage of first-hand experience; his experience has given him particular insight to a place, a time, a group of people, which I can never have. But it would have been a particular place, group of people and time, and as more information on language is shared, we will all get access to what becomes available of the terms and expressions used by combatants during that campaign. Terms from close to the combat zone will sound inappropriate in the mouths of civilians for a while, just as they did in 1919; G K Chesterton complained about politicians who described themselves as ‘under fire’ while sitting on the Front Bench of the House of Commons facing difficult questions.

My current research is about how the civilian world took over army slang during the First World War, sometimes to the resentment of the soldiers, as expressed in trench journals. But the editors, mothers, children, those whose homes were bombed by Zeppelins, the munitions workers, conchies, and profiteers who wrote, spoke and read war slang were also involved in the war, and all were influenced by its language. War slang belongs not only to combatants, but to all those who suffer indirectly and directly, and ultimately all of us. As we approach Remembrance Day ‘cushy’, ‘shellshock’, ‘no man’s land’, ‘lousy’ and all the rest are not reserved for those of us who over the next few days will weep when they think of relatives they never knew, but for all who come after.

Monday, 27 October 2014

More Other Ranks

Further to the post on 'Other Ranks', the May 1916 issue of The Twentieth Gazette - which the British Library catalogue describes as 'A journal devoted to the interests of the 20th Battalion C.E.F. (Northern and Central Ontario Regt.)' - contains on page 3 the report of a cricket match:

20th Batt. v 31st Batt.

The 20th Batt.'s innings is listed as follows: 
Lieut. McLean    ..      ..      3
Lieut. Hainington        ..      2
Lieut. Hay          ..      ..       4
Lieut. Macaulay         ..     17
R.S.M. Fraser    ..      ..      7
Pugh        ..       ..       ..      5
Shepherd          ..       ..    14
Sgt. Markham   ..       ..      0
Williams   ..       ..       ..     11
Dingle (run out)          ..      0
Goldworthy (run out)  ..      0
    Extras  ..       ..       ..       4
                      Total            67

The absence of any rank given to nearly half the team, while the others are denoted by rank (including non-commissioned officers) is reminiscent of the system which used to be operated in club cricket in the UK. This lasted till the 1960s, a distinction being shown between professional cricketers, designated by showing the surname followed by initials of the first names, alongside club-members, who would be designated by having their initials before their surnames.

Curiously, a cricket report on the following page of The Twentieth Gazette does not make this discrimination.

Other Ranks

Always (to me) rather surprising, the use of the term "Other Ranks" caught the eye of a correspondent for The Manchester Guardian in December 1919:

Your recent note in "Miscellany" regarding the magnificent service rendered by pigeons during the war (writes a correspondent) reminded me of a telegram once received at a certain R.A.F. headquarters where I was serving. It announced the arrival in Egypt of "300 pigeons and 3 Other Ranks." 

At least they warranted initial capital letters, as is still the case in the British Army. The earliest documentation of the term in the OED is from 1904 Regulations for Mobilization (with a z), in which it does not have capitals.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

'Verdun' as a personal name

It would have to be one of the strangest linguistic phenomena to come out of the war. An article in The Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer on 29 October 1936 reads as follows:

Every now and then one hears of people whose first or second Christian names are "Mafeking" or "Ladysmith" or perhaps "Buller."  Whereupon we amateur detectives, with uncanny instinct, are able to deduce that they were born at the time of the early enthusiasms of the Boer War. And it seems that there is a generation now reaching manhood which bears a similar crop of names from the Great War. The fact was revealed to me when I noticed that a twenty-year-old defendant in a Wakefield court case had "Verdun" as a Christian name.

It was in 1916 that Verdun as a war name was prominent. Who knows what examples of wartime names we may have around us? All unknowing, we may be rubbing shoulders with twenty-year-olds called Poperinghe Potts or Dickebusch Dawson; or we may be travelling on the 'bus with youngsters who sign themselves Plugstreet Brown, or Wipers Jones, or Armentieers Robinson.

And perhaps at this very moment municipally-minded families of Leeds are bestowing on their unfortunate babies the names of more modern battles. Possibly in another five years young Master Gipton Gibbs and young Miss Moortown Maggs will be attending their first kindergarten.

Indeed, one never knows, does one?

Well, persons charged with various crimes in 1936 included William Verdun Barrett, aged 10, (Western Morning News, Devon, 2 January 1936), Percy Verdun Jackson, aged 18 (Bedfordshire Times and Independent, 24 January 1936), Frank Verdun Bernard, of Broomfield Road, Chelmsford (Essex Newsman, 8 August 1936), and Nelson Verdun Fraser Collis (Aberdeen Journal, 22 August 1936).

But it was not entirely a name to be associated with stories of nefarious goings-on. Miss Winifred Verdun Albone was married on 13 April 1936 (Bedfordshire Times and Independent, 17 April 1936), and a teacher living in Bath was married, her attendant being her sister Miss Verdun Ham (Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette, 26 September 1936); and on 9 October 1936 the Northampton Mercury reported on the wedding of Miss Jessie Verdun Watson to Mr. Leslie John Savage.

Why 'Verdun' and not a name associated more with British rather than French troops? Though 'Verdun' does indeed seem to have been a prominent name, neither Armentieres, Armenteers, Wipers nor Plugstreet feature as personal names. And it is noticeable that 18 years after the Armistice the 'soldiers' names' Plugstreet, Wipers and Armenteers are retained.

No First World War battle names appear within the top 1000 babies' names for the period 1910-1929, though there was indeed a strong precedent - several children were named after battles of the Boer War in the few years following that conflict.

And any news on the battles of Gipton or Moortown would be welcome.