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.

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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.