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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.


Saturday, 10 October 2015

Mr Taylor's Valentines

Curating an exhibition is an act of care and creation. Not only are works to be seen to their best advantage, but the curator must be aware of opportunities to stimulate emerging meaning, must be aware of the implications of the visual relationship between works (above/below, left/right, opposite?), the view of the audience, the wider context of site. It is a lot harder than it looks – indeed the work involves making it not look hard at all, unless we want it to look hard, which is probably even harder.

Having put together the exhibition at Valentines Mansion ‘Mr Taylor’s Valentines’ I have been reflecting on the process. My initial concern was how the works – framed dense arrangements of shells – would sit in the cases available. Would the frames of the cabinet windows impede the view of the works? Would the spaces be large enough? Would the lighting cause annoying reflections? Would I be able to show all the works? Ultimately there are few spaces in which these questions do not cause curatorial problems. Choices have to be made, uncomfortable ones, often with limited time; there are few possibilities of trying an arrangement out; we have to make do with what we have got. But equally there are going to be dialogues between the works and their environments – plural because these are spatial, personal, they involve opening times, other events going on in the space, health and safety, conservation demands. There is no neutral space, and exhibited objects have these dialogues with the context we put them in whether we like it or not.

In putting together the show I had some concerns, not about how I felt about the work, which I have felt was superb since I first saw it, but about questions about the making of the works might impede actual appreciation of their composition and meaning. I anticipated questions like ‘how long did each one take to make?’, ‘how many shells were there in each piece?’, or even ‘why are they pretending to be antique?’ All of these are perfectly legitimate questions, but maybe more useful for the maker to ask him or herself. The show was arranged because I wanted others initially to have the experience I had had, the sudden intake of breath and the rush of delight - in effect I wanted people to say ‘wow’ - but I wanted there to be a lot more after the ‘wow’.

Terry Taylor’s sailors’ valentines are works of dedication and exploration. They stemmed from his collecting originals, and follow the delight in the object through the compulsion to make. For many they are eccentric, obsessive, bizarre, a little uncomfortable, and overtly referential to the antique. Equally they are wonderfully eccentric, in-the-face obsessive, beautifully bizarre, and challengingly uncomfortable as well as comfortingly antique. Their stories challenge their own face value: the nineteenth-century sailors’ valentines were not made by sailors but by craft-workers in Barbados using shells from Indonesia. They were sold to British sailors to take back to Britain, and no doubt on occasions were palmed off to waiting sweethearts as the returning sailor’s own work. They are only ‘sailors’’ because sailors bought them, their ‘authenticity’ suspect from the start. Terry Taylor’s valentines use the language of the nineteenth century, and their ‘authenticity’ with their sentimental messages, their use of the octagonal frame, their overt reference to crowded Edwardian parlours and chocolate-box nostalgia edges them towards the originals. We are invited by the visual references to want them to be ‘authentic’, though we know that this word is rendered meaningless by the objects themselves.

And as we read their arrangements as patterns, or occasionally words or flowers, we still know that they are just shells, and that knowledge pushes us further into complicity – the complicity of art that makes raw objects, pigment, clay, charcoal, into something that we use to talk to ourselves about the business of being human in the world. 

Part of their strength is that they pull us towards them, pulling us into the world of the collector, the arranger, as well as the child on the beach, the adult with a pocketful of holiday souvenirs; but equally the nostalgic world of empire, navy, wealth and comfort, and that is where another edge comes in, as we remember that the setting for this exhibition, Valentines Mansion, was largely a product of profits made from world trade under the protection of imperial power. And being sailors’ valentines they were already in a deliberate linguistic context.  Though as makers we want our works to be perceived as themselves rather than as something that fits into a context, we know equally that art itself is in a context, art in the context of sitting-room wall, the garden, the museum shelf, the church, the National Gallery, the investment portfolio, the white cube gallery or the wider context of art history. For that reason I wanted to make the works seem immediately less eccentric by placing them in the context of the human relationship to shells. The more I looked at the history of the use of shells as art, artefact, symbol, decoration, the more obvious it became that the appeal of the shell has been with us since we started to react to our environments. Think petroleum, grottoes, Botticelli’s Venus, nursery rhymes, Pacific Island fish-hooks, Neolithic necklaces, aphrodisiacs, Bachelard’s ‘daydreams of refuge’, wood-inlays, la Casa de las Conchas in Salamanca, Molly Malone the shellfish peddler, Stone Age refuse piles, The Lord of the Flies, barter-tokens, cutlery handles, sandcastles. The valentines are contextualised by shell-shaped teapots, shell badges, mother-of-pearl gambling tokens, books open to references of grottoes and shell statues, masks with shells, a shell cross, and more.

The contextual material in the exhibition then – shells as artefacts and decoration, and shells as themselves – serves to show that Terry Taylor’s works, far from being eccentric outsider art, sit within the mainstream of both art and the nature of being human in the world. They are part of a mindset that encompasses both wandering along the shore and thinking that a certain shell has to be picked up and taken home, and exploring our own perception of what appeals to us. The context is both wide and multi-layered, and in the middle of it lies our wonder and delight at the shell, which drives these works because it drove the original sailors’ valentines. Putting the exhibition together put me in the way of handling several shells, and I was aware of several questions emerging: why is the outside of a clam so rough and the inside so smooth? What is the space inside the cowrie? What inside the conch lies beyond the farthest place my fingers can reach? A shell, which is both the covering and the creature that lives within it, is a being whose outside charms us, but whose inside confounds us, confronting us with our inability to feel the space inside the vortex of the conch, to comprehend the being of the clam, to believe the grip of the limpet. As Bachelard says ‘the imagination is defeated by reality’.

'Mr Taylor's Valentines' is at Valentines Mansion, Gants Hill, until 28 October 2015, Tuesdays and Sundays 11-3, plus 26-28 October 11-3

Bachelard, G, 1994, The Poetics of Space, Boston 105 & 107

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Another English to French term

An article in The Times 31 March 1915, under the heading 'Trench Slang, New French Terms', gives a few examples of French trench slang. The Times generally avoided using English trench slang, though at least one of its writers admitted that using such terms was 'inevitable' (20 April 1915).

The list given includes the term 'boche', stating that 'it was hardly known before the war, though allboche, of which it is an abbreviation, was fairly common.'

The final paragraph lists some trench journal titles including the following:
Another founded recently is the Télé-Mèle, which is produced by a section of telegraphists, and borrows its title, with altered spelling, from the Daily Mail.

Strong evidence of the extent to which British newspapers circulated at the Front, and behind the lines, and the extent to which a particular newspaper might be circulating more than others. What was the nature of the satire, if satire was there, in using the name of a British newspaper, even one particular newspaper? Certainly there is an inference that it would be recognised. And if so, what were they saying about the Daily Mail?

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

More words adopted into French from English 1914-18

Following on from Albert Dauzat’s collection of words adopted into French during the Great War, here are some collected by Eric Partridge (from Words, Words, Words!’ 1933):

Pouloper: to gallop, from the English ‘pull up’, so a complete reversal of meaning in the course of the transfer.
Bath: in the phrase ‘c’est bath’, from the fashionable reputation of Bath, so meaning ‘great’, or as Partridge puts it ‘It’s tip-top’. Allied to this is ‘c’est palace’, meaning the same, and appearing in the phrase ‘nous allons être palaces’ = ‘we’re in for a cushy time’.
Sops: planes, from Sopwith, cf ‘taube’ for German planes.
Finish: meaning ‘there’s no more’, so presumably adopted as a mirror of the anglicisation ‘finee’.
Strafer: taken from the British adoption of the German strafen, so a bounced on adoption.
Coltar: wine (coal tar).
Afnaf: ‘either not too well pleased, or satisfied, or else exhausted. Wonderfully imitative of the cockney “’arf ’n ’arf”.
Olrède: say it with a French accent, and it comes out ‘alright’.
Lorry: with the plural ‘lorrys’.

Partridge does not give his sources, which is sad, but presumably he was transcribing ‘afnaf’ and ‘olrède’ from speech. The Académie Française would have had a fit.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

First World War words adopted from English into French

Well known are the words that were adopted from French into English during the First World War. Some were fairly simple exchanges, new words for old: ‘coupon’ pushed ‘ticket’ aside, ‘moral’ became ‘morale’, and ‘souvenir’ was souvenired, making ‘keepsake’ look decidedly old-fashioned. Otherwise we would recognise the French words from which ‘finee’, ‘compree’, and ‘tray bon’ come, via anglicised pronunciation. Some picked up some very English wordplay in their travel across the Channel: ‘tout de suite’ became ‘toot the sweet’, and gained the after-comment ‘and the tooter the sweeter’.

Less well known in the UK are the words that the French adopted from English, in some cases, joyously, reclaiming words adopted from French centuries earlier. These come from L’Argot de la Guerre by Albert Dauzat, first published in 1918, and reissued in 2009, with an introduction by Odile Roynette:

‘Emprunts’ (loans) include ‘bizness’ – for work or business, a longstanding usage in Paris; ‘souinger’ – to bomb, from ‘swing’, originally ‘donner un swing’, probably from boxing; ‘uppercut’ – eau-de-vie, also from boxing; ‘rider’ , pronounced 'ridér'– chic, especially in the language of the cavalry (Dauzat states ‘le rider est le cavalier anglais, donc le cavalier chic – a case of the French looking to the English for style, which must be a rarity); ‘ours’ – horse, maybe picked up from Londoners; ‘go’ – meaning ‘ça va’; ‘come on’ meaning just that; and ‘tanks’, which Dauzat translates as ‘les auto-mitrailleuses ou les auto-camions blindés’ (reinforced); ‘blindés’ itself meant ‘tanks’.

Somehow recruits into the French Army in 1918 came to be known as ‘canadiens’.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Women and the failure of language - First World War

The current focus in television representations of the First World War seems to be on the role of women as nurses. It is a forum which at least gives some status to older women, who in this environment are often shown as professional, distant and strong, and often phlegmatic, even tight-lipped. All of which connects strongly to the relationship between women and speech during the First World War, as shown in two of the essays in the volumes Languages and the First World War, currently in the process of publication.

The need to silence women was clearly apparent in the case of Mata Hari, a woman seen as threatening, dangerous, exposing weakness, and therefore needing to be rooted out. In Julie Wheelwright’s essay for the second volume (Representation and Memory) the concept of espionage and the implications of secret language are ultimately about revealing the hidden, and hiding that which should not be revealed; far from state censorship but equally a relationship between fear and the state, the story of the ‘spy’ shot by the French is one of mysogyny, control, and race. But it also raises the question of womens’ relationship with language in the context of shifting communication structures and the sudden changes of cultural focus during wartime. The language of race framed the fear of the threat presented by the outsider Mata Hari, as she was used and blamed, as she was both the mangeuse and the tool, in ultimately what was a sadly clumsy and all too recognisable failure of the male to manage fear and desire. The name 'Mata Hari' evokes confusion, not knowing where we stand in terms of power, as regards fiction and non-fiction, and politically, racially and sexually, and reaches out into a future post-1918. 

What happens when women’s opportunities for verbal communication are severely circumscribed is considered by Milos Damjanovic in his essay on the effects of the conflict on the Jewish community of Kosovo-Metohija in the Balkans. Women in this urban context were strongly based in the home and the cultures of the home; this is particularly seen in the linguistic field, where women acted as the guardians of the traditional language, Ladino, ultimately transferred from the Iberian peninsula. The unintended consequence of the limitations on women applied by the social structure led to Ladino being not so much actively defended from influence, as becoming a ‘home’ language in a multilingual environment. Damjanovic proposes that this gaurdianship occurred because women in this culture were prevented from having linguistic contact with other cultures.

While women, particularly mothers, clearly had a major role as guardians of the concept of ‘home’ during the war, older women had a more difficult position. Often satirised as out of touch, useless, and dressed in the fashions of the late Victorian period, their status was highlighted in their supposed restricted awareness of language change or by a limiting of their voices. A humorous postcard shows an elderly woman visiting a wounded soldier – ‘You weren’t wounded at the Front, then?’ she asks; the wounded soldier replies to the discomfited visitor ‘No, lady! A shell exploded at the base, but the base happened to be mine’. She is embarrassed, while the soldier in the next bed is laughing.

In others, an elderly woman talks to a sailor: ‘I see the papers say you were stripped for action – I wonder you didn’t catch your death of cold’, or tells a soldier on crutches ‘I know just what it must feel like, poor fellow – I had a corn plaster on all last week, and it’s been somethink awful’.

‘Getting it wrong’, in one advert, provokes what now, in a period supposedly less affected by decorum and politeness, seems to be staggering offence. An advertisement for Ariston Cigarettes was published in Punch 16 May 1917.

Cigarette Situations No 6 - If the dear old lady asks you what you think of the war – the fitting smoke for this situation is Ariston.
In all moments of exasperation, of embarrassment, of disquietude, the smoking of an Ariston – and yet another – assists in readjusting matters to harmony; its fragrant, unparalleled taste helps thought and brings an appreciation of the things that really matter.

It is a pretty damning avowal that elderly women do not matter. Hospital visiting was regularly shown as unwanted interference: in this postcard a visitor is told to ‘Oppitubitch’ as well as being shown as mistaking the term for the name of a Russian; our attention may be taken entirely by the use of ‘bitch’, so we might not notice the implication that she is parochially startled by  the foreign.

In an environment where people went to great lengths to show that they were ‘doing their bit’, for women above a certain age contributions to the war effort were undesirable and fit only for ridicule. Their attempts, and as a result they themselves, were seen as tiresome, interfering, embarrassing, and unwanted.

Even after the war older women were held up as making verbal mistakes or as being the subject of verbal mistakes. Three cartoons in Punch show older women making verbal mistakes (the issue of 8 January 1919 seemed to be out to show older women in a bad light). One cartoon has a ‘Dear Old Lady (to returning warrior)' saying: “Welcome back to Blimey”. Another cartoon shows a priest addressing an older woman: ‘I hear your husband is home from France. Is the army going to release him?’ ‘Well, he’s got a fortnight before he goes back, but by that time he hopes to be demoralised’. In another cartoon in the same issue one older woman is talking to another: ‘I wish my hsband had joined them pivots instead of the foosileers. He’d a been demobilised by now’.   In these instances older women are shown on the edge of the ‘adversity group’ who were identified by their familiarity with, and their correct use of slang. If we think of slang as being centred on the soldiers, sailors and aviators, with a secondary ring of familiarity being the officers, and then the press, and then readers of the press, older women are clearly the users of ‘failed trench slang’, not quite outsiders, but indicators again of what not to do, despite and indeed because of their best intentions. Older women’s mistakes – ‘blimey’, ‘demoralised’, ‘pivots’ – show the standard; this is what the language at the time should not be. Even if they did use a term correctly this was likely to be interpreted as an encroachment into a register that was inappropriate.Helen Z Smith in her semi-autobiographical novel Not So Quiet (1930) mocks the mother’s use of the word ‘cushy’ – ‘How well up in war slang is Mother’. They were damned if they did and damned if they didn’t.

Perhaps older women’s most positively shown power was that of tight-lipped outrage. Silence could be strong, and potentially intimidating to an enemy – this cartoon by the celebrated Charles Graves appeared in the Hun's Handbook (1915).

Thursday, 21 May 2015

A war of trouser buttons

The following appears in the ‘Trade Jottings’ columns of The Tailor and Cutter, 12 November 1914:

The British soldier at the front has hit upon an ingenious and effective expedient for keeping his German prisoner from escaping when once he has been captured. He simply, so says a contemporary, cuts the buttons off his trousers, thus the German has perforce to walk with his hands in his pockets.
Evidently, the buttons on the German soldiers’ uniforms are sewn on more securely than Tommy Atkins’s, for if what we hear is true, should any of our troops fall into the hands of the Germans, there would be no necessity to cut off their buttons; to touch them would be quite sufficient.

A bit of typical British self-deprecation, jealousy of German efficiency, and a rather alarming image of the process of taking prisoners, on both sides. From what I can find out, feldgrau trousers did not have belt-loops but were held up by braces (US suspenders) attached to waist-buttons, so theoretically this story is viable - see http://www.ir63.org/index.php?page=16 . But there may be also an element of ritual humiliation involved. I came across a later image in the Illustrated London News of German troops being told to 'hold up the ceiling' as they surrendered - 'reach higher, show despair, up on your toes'. Making a captured enemy's trousers fall down would be an even stronger declaration, physically and symbolically, of power. 

There is also an unexpected answer to a - I think - previously unasked question: why are there so many British military buttons on ebay? Apparently they were sewn on so weakly (too few stitches, cheap thread?) that you just needed to touch them to make them fall off. It seems almost to refer to the other meaning of the word 'button', something you press to set something happening, a perturbing image in this case.

Monday, 27 April 2015

Languages and the First World War update

We are at one of the more exciting stages of editing the two volumes of essays for Languages and the First World War : with some of the essays in, patterns and links appear more strongly, and as more arrive the body of work becomes more robust and intriguing.

A quote in Krista Cowman’s essay which mentioned ‘a French Tommy’ set off a few links with other possibilities for the use of the word ‘Tommy’, for last week’s blog (which had a gratifyingly wide readership), and we have just been looking at Julie Wheelwright’s paper on Mata Hari, and the influence of spy fiction, in relation to Robert Hampson’s paper on the role of class and its relation to the use of foreign languages in postwar fiction. One of Mata Hari’s threats to society was that she could not be pinned down – geographically, sexually, in terms of her social status, or even in terms of her name, which had its own geographically roving and worrying nature. Robert Hampson’s observations of the use of foreign languages in Parade’s End and Her Privates We show that Ford Madox Ford used European foreign languages as markers of higher social status, and the traces of Hindi in army slang as a marker of lower social status, while Frederick Manning’s rank and file-located narrative involves passages of French being used as part of the everyday life of the soldier. Clear demarcations break down, requiring closer investigation.

In a number of zones we see the power of children in pushing forward linguistic change. Milos Damjanovic’s paper on the complex changes in language in the Jewish community in Kosovo-Metohija examines an ethnic group whose normal linguistic situation was one of vulnerability and accommodation; in this community, having to adapt to changes of state and empowered religions, postwar dispensations put the younger generation in a position of having to and being able to adapt quickly to learn Serbian, French and English. Similarly Gavin Bowd’s essay shows how in German-occupied Belgium children were fascinated with the language of the soldiers, and created their own hybrid texts. Dominiek Dendooven’s paper on the diary of the Flemish priest Achille Van Walleghem has an anecdote about a local boy finding, from experience, the value of understanding body language when verbal communication is impossible, in this case between himself and a Chinese Labour Corps worker.

The two volumes of Languages and the First World War, Communicating in a Transnational War and Representation and Memory  comprise 30 essays by international researchers, experts and academics, and will be published in early 2016, by Palgrave-Macmillan.