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.


Tuesday, 10 May 2016

This not very sporting life

To mark the publication of The Roar of the Crowd, a sporting anthology, published by the British Library. 

You remember the victories; for me, one in particular. Being the best defender I was always picked against the best goalkeeper, Sandy Martin. I was on the winning side once, scoring twice – I rounded him and later I nutmegged him, though we didn’t call it that then. Somebody, a teacher I think, said ‘Well played’, which was not much considering that in reality I was now a giant among men, Theseus, Julius Caesar and the Lone Ranger rolled into one, avenging the three defeats a week that typified most of the winter term. As a result of this I was later appointed as team captain; also, having a good voice and an unaggressive nature, it was felt I might manage things so that the more timid boys might get a look in. But it wasn’t a team game – you dribbled and tackled, and occasionally the ball went in; passing came to us as naturally as sharing an Easter egg with our siblings.

Sport was a large part of my secondary education, introducing me to activities I had never heard of and would never participate in again – fives, fencing, triple-jump. Some of them I felt comfortable with (tennis, table-tennis, snooker, cricket), others I felt uncomfortable with (basketball, running, hockey), and some I viewed with undisguised despair (swimming, boxing, cross-country running); I thought triple-jump was plain daft. In the prevalent culture of skiving, most of the ‘sport’ involved finding ways of finishing a match quickly so you could go home early – knocking the ball into the nearest undergrowth, falling onto your wicket, or arguing with the ref and getting sent off. The teachers responded by changing the rules, which only challenged us to devise new ways of pretending to be mad, sick or unable to understand the limits of the field of play.

Despite all this, some sports interested me. Without excelling I came away with a medal for archery and developed a way of crouching in the run-up to a long jump that, at the cost of references to Groucho Marx, gave me extra lift and an extra few inches of undisturbed sand.

Since leaving school I have been involved in only two team-game matches that involved changing clothes, but have occasionally played tennis, ping-pong, billiards, and badminton. I have cycled as a pleasing way of getting from A to B, lifted weights and swum in an attempt to lose weight, but competitive sports had more or less gone from my life by the time I had children; with them I played beach-cricket and boules, but not to win.

Some time in the late 1980s I heard Joyce Carol Oates’ On Boxing read on BBC radio. I was held by it, startled, disturbed. Here was a sport I had totally dispensed with suddenly being given meaning, and its meaning was being teased out of it in ways that I had never considered: sport as tragedy, sport as will, sport as willingly being hurt, sport as self-destruction, sport as time, sport as a metaphor for life, life as a metaphor for sport even. Of all the sports that could be chosen to explore the meaning of sport, boxing was for me the most unlikely – boxing at school was painful, humiliating, the chosen sport of a bullying PE teacher. And yet Oates makes it disturbingly complex, a medium for exploring the self, the nature of destruction, pity, despair, love. She proposes that the only way to understand boxing is to consider it as not a sport: ‘there is nothing fundamentally playful about it, nothing that seems to belong to daylight, to pleasure. At its moments of greatest intensity it seems to contain so complete and powerful an image of life – life’s beauty, vulnerability, despair, incalculable and often self-destructive courage – that boxing is life, and hardly a mere game.’ The provocative use of the word ‘game’ highlights not just the seriousness of boxing, but the tension inherent within all sport: the ambiguity of ‘play’, the difference between games and sport, between taking part and winning, Anglo-Saxon pastime and Norman competition, the interdependence of loser and winner. Linguistically boxing embraces opposites; the ring is square; they fight but they do not fight; Pierce Egan, the great writer of nineteenth-century pugilism, called it ‘the sweet science of bruising’ and ‘the art of self-defence’.

And despite being so much about one against one, boxing is ultimately about the self. It may be the reduction of all physical competition (for running is essentially only about speed) and surely about ‘me being better than you’; but for Oates ‘my strengths are not fully my own, but my opponent’s weaknesses’. The boxer has to learn to ‘inhibit his own instinct for survival’; the only way to beat my opponent is by overcoming myself. Here even was something that I could relate to in my own puny experience of boxing.

So is boxing not theatre, not a ritual, not metaphor? Not with all the lights, the audience, the spectacle? Not quite, it is ‘a unique and highly condensed drama without words’, a story that needs mediation by words – ‘ringside announcers give to the wordless spectacle a narrative unity …’  Sport needs words to create its meaning, and boxing more than most – hence perhaps its fascination for so many writers. How sport needs words can be seen in so much sports journalism, articles often falling into two parts; you get the description of the match, but in order to make it matter, first you get the meaning of the match.

I return frequently to Oates’ text because it is not a simple thesis but a series of proposals, and worries; there is no escaping the fact that spectating at a boxing match involves an incitement to violence – ‘spectators at boxing matches relive the murderous infancy of the race’; we have ‘a sense not only that something very ugly is happening but that, by watching it, one is an accomplice’. But is this not the case whenever we watch competitive sport, because for every winner there must be many more losers? For every captain who lifts the cup there are banks of supporters weeping into their scarves and defiantly chanting their despair, not giving up, but almost broken by the pity of it. As Simon Barnes says in The Meaning of Sport ‘perhaps sport matters because it doesn’t matter’. And in this boxing perhaps is like any other sport, a perplexing jamming together of contrasts; as Oates says, despite the horror of complicity ‘we don’t give up on boxing, it isn’t that easy. Perhaps it is like tasting blood. Or, more discreetly put, love commingled with hate is more powerful than love. Or hate.’



Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Agricultural and horticultural advice from 1716

Having just acquired a lovely copy of Mortimer's The Whole Art of Husbandry: or, The Way of Managing and Improving of Land (1716) I am able to pass on the following:

Observations on December:

The Earth is now commonly locked up under its frozen Coat, that the Husbandman hath leisure to sit and spend what store he hath before-hand provided.

We are aiming to  make apple-crumble this evening, made with apples grown at the allotment, from an excellent tree purchased at Woolworth's, of happy memory, which bears Lamberts, Russets and remarkably tasty Golden Delicious; the Lamberts are the best. Also we have a variety called The Tree of Knowledge, prepared for the British Library exhibition The Writer in the Garden, in 2004.

In 1716 the apples 'in prime, or yet lasting' included:

Russeting Pippin, Leather-coat, Winter red Chestnut Apple, Great-Belly, the Go-no farther, or Cats-head, with some of the precedent month.

These last included:

The Belle Bonne, the William, Summer Pearmain, Lording Apple, Pear Apple, Cardinal, Winter Chestnut; Short Start, &c.

Important advice for your conservatory (NB 'charcoal' as a plural noun):


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.