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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.


Sunday, 22 February 2015

Addition to the post on the non-gendering of infants

Now, this is an interesting addition to the question of the non-gendering of infants in the nineteenth century. Lindley Murray's 'English Grammar' was on its forty-seventh edition in 1834, and easily the most popular textbook on the subject. First published in 1795, during the 1830s it was available in embossed print for the blind, and was translated into Marathi for Indian students.

This is from p151, in the section in Syntax on pronoun agreement :

We hardly consider little children as persons, because that term gives us the idea of reason and reflection: and therefore the application of the personal relative who, in this case, seems to be harsh: "A child who." It is still more improperly applied to animals: "A lake frequented by that fowl whom nature has taught to dip the wing in water." 

This is purely from the point of view of grammar, but it suggests that it is based on the idea that gender is something that is grown into, or acquired with the ability to reason and reflect. Or that adults would take no notice of gender until the powers of reason and reflection were also noticeable. Is it proposing that gender-acquisition is dependent upon the ability to reason and reflect? This is curious given that it was within a world where the statuses of male and female were profoundly different. All rather perplexing, especially given Murray's philanthropic mindset.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Shell shock and trench coat

Corrections to this post, as the dates were wrong

An advertisement for Phosferine in The Sphere 23 October 1915 (not 1914, as previously proposed): Phospherine is stated as being good for ‘nervous exhaustion and stunning of senses caused by shell shock’.

What is interesting about 'shell shock' is that the term here is not used for the physiological condition but the cause of the physiological condition - the shock of the shell causes the nervous exhaustion and stunning of the senses, the neurological condition that later would be called 'shell-shock'. 

The (now) earliest recorded use of 'trench coat' was in Punch on 23 December 1914, in an advertisement for Thresher and Glenny: 'Shell made of hard khaki drill, lined sheepskin, and a special interlining, rendering it absolutely waterproof
Wind, wet and mud resisting.'

Saturday, 7 February 2015

The effects of infant mortality in the nineteenth century as seen in the non-gendering of babies in literature

The incidence of infant mortality in the 19th century beggars belief. Arthur Leared, physician at the Great Northern Hospital near King’s Cross in London, begins his article ‘Infant Mortality and its Causes’ (1862) with the statistic: ‘About one-fourth of all the children born in this civilized country perish miserably in the first year of their existence’. He compares the lot of animals to that of humans, noting that ‘the free agency of man caused an indifference to the strongest of all natural obligations, and that the results of apathy and ignorance are mistaken for those of a natural law’. The drift from the countryside to the cities and towns created conditions where disease was bound to carry off the weakest, and in 1915 Hugh Ashby noted that ‘the conditions generally found in towns are far more inimical to infant life than those in the country’ [Infant Mortality, Cambridge, 1915]. However, many factors caused the high incidence of infant mortality, Ashby citing poverty, the lack of skill in childcare, improper feeding, alcohol and opium abuse, as well as the myriad of diseases that carried children off suddenly and to which 19th-century medicine had no answer.

The statistics did not change much through the course of the century. In 1827 more than one in four children born in the east London area of Bethnal Green died before reaching the age of two (Alan Palmer The East End (2000) p 60).  While Ashby cited rates of between 13% and 16.3% (mortality specifically before 12 months) from 1880 to 1900, C F Masterman in The Condition of England (1909/11) reported 20% infant mortality in the Pottery towns [p137].

Some writers moved in areas where the figures, spiralling out of control, seemed to invoke the spectres of diseases that science was banishing to the past. The Countess of Ebersburg, in Six out of Ten: an Awful Bill (1877), reported that eighty per cent of infants deaths were caused not just by scarlatina, diphtheria, hooping cough, and measles, but also by ‘miasma’, ‘convulsions’ and ‘cholera infantum’ (caused by ‘bad air and bad food’) [p2]. Elsewhere she mentions ‘marasmus, the slow fading and wasting away of scrofulous little children’, and ‘miasmatic germs, or crowd poison’ [pp3, 5]. The countess calculated that ‘of all the little babes born in one year SIX OUT OF TEN die ere they reach the fifth year’ [p10]. Leared notes that ‘it is no uncommon thing’ for only one child in a family of eight or ten to survive [p8,9].

These startling statistics were not limited to the parts of a major cities that had poor sanitation or whose residents had low incomes or limited education. Mary Shelley lost three of her four children, at the ages of two weeks, one year, and three years; Byron’s daughter Allegra died at the age of five; Charles Lamb was one of seven siblings, of whom four died as infants; Elizabeth Gaskell and her brother John were the two out of the eight children born to their parents who survived infancy. Childbirth itself was likely to produce casualties, with both mother and child at risk, even in hospital. James Young Simpson in his work showing the value of anaesthetic quoted statistics showing that in the last two decades of the eighteenth century in London mortality rates for mothers in parturition were 1 in 110; the rate countrywide for 1841 was still 1 in 170 (Anæsthesia, or the Employment of chloroform and ether in surgery, midwifery, etc., Philadelphia, 1949, pp 48-9).

Destitution and starvation were killers too. William Blake, whose sensibilities embraced the world of the young child (how many ‘babes’ are there in Songs of Innocence and of Experience?), was portraying the real world in ‘Holy Thursday’ (Experience), both in the words ‘Babes reduced to misery’ and in the image of the woman staring at the dead infant abandoned on the ground.

It is not surprising that this high risk of loss of a child should affect the parent-baby relationship. At the heart of the parent-baby relationship lay the long-standing idea that newborn children were ‘on loan’. Shakespeare’s Capulet in Romeo and Juliet states of his daughter that ‘God had lent us but this only child’, all the Capulet’s other children having died young. This sense of children being on loan rather than permanent survived into the Victorian era, creating a culture in which there was a close association between babies and death – witness the vogue for carte de visite photographs of dead babies. Babies  were seen as ‘visiting angels’ (Jonathan Miller, BBC, 4 Jan 1998), and the dead were wrapped in shrouds which resembled baby clothes (Julian Litten, The English Way of Death, 1991, p 84). Though heartbreak was real for the bereaved parents, there could also be a kind of commitment avoidance in the delaying of naming children till they had survived the first few months of life.

Given that babies ran a one in four risk of death, and that surviving infancy was such an achievement, it is surprising how seldom this is treated in 19th-century literature. There seems to be a general absence of interest in babies, or, when they do appear, they are referred to with impersonal and non-gendered terms. While young children in literature of this period may have strong identities babies seldom do; they are adjuncts, almost symbols or props. Where they do function in the plot, they are referred to as ‘it’, ‘baby’, ‘infant’, ‘child’, seldom gendered or named. We have to be careful here to distinguish between two linguistic situations: on one hand where the sex of the child is not known (‘Is it a boy or girl?’), and on the other where it is ignored, examples of which I here present. The avoidance of stating the gender of babies, evidenced by the use of the word ‘it’, is part of the non-engagement with babies as individuals, seen in repeated incidences in nineteenth-century literature. 

Wordsworth’s uncomfortable poem The Thorn (1789) deals with the anguish brought on by rejection and pregnancy outside marriage; the existence of the infant, and the death of the infant, exerts a strong force within the poem, but the baby never breaks through to actual identity. Marian in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s 1856 poem Aurora Leigh is found to have a child, but it is several pages before we find that the child is male; he is addressed as ‘the child’, ‘my lamb’, ‘my flower, my pet’, but even seven years later along the plot-line we do not know the child’s name.

The youngest member of the Pocket family in Dickens’s Great Expectations (1861) is continually referred to or addressed as ‘baby’, the child’s name or gender never being revealed, despite being a clearly defined character. In Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd (1874), when Gabriel Oak erases the words ‘and child’ from Fanny Robin’s coffin, he is removing the identification of her shame, and protecting her memory, but in so doing effecting the removal of the ungendered child’s existence. Though Bathsheba castigates Troy for kissing ‘them’, the dead mother and ungendered child in the coffin, it is in fact only Fanny’s corpse that he kisses.

In The Prime Minister (1876) by Anthony Trollope we know that Emily’s baby is male – there are five references to ‘him’ and ‘he’ – but while the words ‘baby’, ‘child’ and ‘infant’ are used, ‘son’ and ‘boy’ are not. The baby dies within a few days, and is not named. Christina Rossetti’s Sing-Song (1893), a book of nursery rhyme poems, has 13 references to ‘baby’, but only two of them give the gender of the baby. The book notably also contains five rhymes discussing the death of ‘baby’. In E M Forster Howards End (1910) ‘Baby’ is a kind of role-title, bestowed first on Charles and then Margaret; by the end of the book Dolly’s child is ‘Baby’ and ‘the Diddums’.

Even a bereaved mother might omit to bestow a gender in speaking about her child. In March 1816 Mary Shelley’s premature baby died, after her journal entries had referred to her child in non-gendered terms – ‘The child is not quite seven months’, ‘the child not expected to live.’ She wrote to Thomas Jefferson Hogg: ‘My dearest Hogg my baby is dead—will you come to see me as soon as you can. I wish to see you—It was perfectly well when I went to bed—I awoke in the night to give it suck it appeared to be sleeping so quietly that I would not awake it. It was dead then, but we did not find that out till morning—from its appearance it evidently died of convulsions.’
These examples render more noticeable the cases where babies are treated as individuals.
It is in The Prelude (1799) second part, from line 267 – ‘Blessed the infant babe’ – that we see Wordsworth working from the observation of an individual baby going through the process of learning from his mother; and the baby’s gender is specified within 4 lines. Wordsworth’s view of himself, so strongly based on his childhood, and particularly his view of himself as a poet, was closely connected to the ‘infant sensibility’ noted soon after. It is rare to find a writer of this period viewing him/herself as an infant.

In George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871) we can trace a development of the importance of the role of the infant through the changing terms: Celia, who is genuinely devoted to her son, calls him ‘baby’ as much as ‘Arthur’. The term ‘the baby’ is used frequently throughout the book, but he is addressed as ‘baby’ seven times before his name, Arthur, is introduced. Arthur’s role is to highlight the childlessness and barrenness of Dorothy’s marriage – it is after the introduction of Arthur’s name that we are told ‘It seemed clear that where there was a baby, things were right enough, and that error, in general, was a mere lack of that central poising force.’ When Rosamund loses her baby this is referred to as a ‘misfortune’, but clearly means a lot more to Rosamund, who later states ‘I wish I had died with the baby’. The third important birth in the novel fittingly occurs in the ‘Finale’, where Celia announces ‘Dorothea has a little boy’.

On rare occasions we find writers for whom babies were individuals who are addressed directly. Hogg’s Life of Shelley tells the story of the poet addressing a baby on the subject of life before birth: ‘it was a fine placid boy; so far from being disturbed by the interruption, he looked up and smiled.’ It is the kind of direct and ingenuous enquiry one might expect only of Shelley, or Blake. [2408.a..5. Vol 1 p240]. Robert Burns’s A Poet’s Welcome to his Love-begotten Daughter (1785) shows a totally genuine interest in ‘my bonie, sweet, wee dochter’; the poem though was never published. Blake too in his unshackled mind saw babies as not just individuals, but as equals: in ‘Infant Joy’ the two-days old babe names him/herself – there is no need for a gender as the child is addressed directly – and shares the voice of the poem equally with Blake himself.

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.