Monday, 20 December 2010

Evolving English and Mick Imlah

Events: British Library's Evolving English and Memorial Reading: Mick Imlah
Locations: British Library and Senate House

British Library's Evolving English* is a small but fascinating exhibition on the history of the English language. It covers from its very beginning -- Anglo Saxons, Beowulf, Old English, etc -- to its very latest forms, such as text-speak, post-colonial english, slangs and dialects ... There is enough material there to interest the historian, the paleographer, the teenager and the farmer.

What I found most interesting were the booths where you can listen to recordings of regional dialects and accents in the UK. Annoyingly though, there are only two booths, so if you go at prime time (weekends) then you might have to line up an age to listen. You can also participate in the national sound archive by getting a recording of your voice taped. One of the exercises involved you reading an edited version of Mr Tickle.

David Crystal does a good explanation of Beowulf and its historic significance: only about 500 Old English texts survive us, and we can identify about 3000 distinct Old English words - this is meaningless unless you compare it to our current English language. Dickens` novels alone contain more than 3000 distinct words, so imagine *all* the words that are available to us now, and compare that to the limited vocabulary of Old English (OE)! So Beowulf is a very important piece of artefact because it`s the longest text written in OE by far (OE = 600-1150 AD. Middle English = 1300 - 15th cen). There is a copy of it exhibited.

Other things of interest: you can hear Joyce read his Finnegan`s Wake, you can hear Gandhi and Churchill and other famous speakers recite, in their distinctive voice. You can also learn that the Victorian novelist Bulwer-Lytton (who?!) coined the phrase 'it was a dark and st
ormy night', as well as 'the pen is mightier than the sword'. Or that the 'knock-knock' joke is very old (you can find it in Macbeth as well! 'Knock-knock - who's there?')

Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (a Middle English classic) is also shown. Next to it is the oldest (?) score of Summer is icumen round - the blurb next to it explains that in Middle English, the word Spring did not exist, so the word cuckoo had to be used to illustrate the idea of Spring. Why would you have Summer but not Spring? Isn't Spring an important time for farmers, labourers, etc? Huh. Oh and in that song is the first record of the root word of fart (hehe!) - 'to farteth'.

Lastly, an exhibition about accents and dialects could not be complete without a showing of My Fair Lady! I knew that they must use that film in some way. Oh you can also listen to Lily Allen sing LDN, read about Nancy Mitford on the U and Non-U issue, find out about censorship and profanity in relation to DH Lawrence and his generous use of c*nt, get a sense of the history of children's books (started only in the 18th century) .... and I could go on!

Exhibit runs until next April. Check. It. Out.

*The exhibit has an accompanying book with the most hideous cover design ever! (See above image)

s for Mick Imlah, I actually don't have too much to say about him as I've never heard of him until about two weeks ago. And the only reason I went to see a memorial reading of his poetry is the list of distinguished readers. Alan Hollinghurst: swoon! Andrew Motion: cool! Martin Amis: ugh, but still ...

Ok it seems like his poetry cannot be found on the internet. Faber & Faber just launched a selected poetry collection of his, so go buy it and read it.

Anyway, I was glad to have attended the reading, not only because one of my favourite writers was there ... but that the poems were witty, humourous, and had perfect structures (as all the readers were inclined to say). I particularly liked the lightheartedness of 'In Memoriam Alfred Lord Tennyson' -- and the fact that Hollinghurst shared a funny anecdote about Imlah handing the poem in very very late for the TLS issue celebrating the centenial anniversary of Tennyson ... He was incredibly worried that Imlah could only make it to celebrate the next centenary. Ha.

Also, 'Stephen Boyd' was very good. Again, I can't find a decent excerpt of the poem, so here is a review for you to read, from

I will try to read more of his poetry next year ... for the record, this year I only managed to finish the measly number of 23 books, 2 less than my goal. I used to read 100 books per annum.
Those were the days. Last year, I read less than 10. What a disgrace. Hmm ... something new year's resolution something ...

To conclude:

Happy holidays to all who read this blog! (All four or five of you, I dare say!) I will be back in the new year ...

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Matthew Bourne's Cinderella

Event: Matthew Bourne's Cinderella
Location: Sadler's Wells

Like most people, I discovered the contemporary choreographer Matthew Bourne through this film (I still get shivers watching that scene). So earlier this year, I went off to Cardiff to gain my first Matthew Bourne experience. I was not prepared for the ballet: shocked not at the content per se, but that I wasn't expecting Swan Lake to be reinterpreted in that particular way. Of course it was going to be unconventional, with a male protagonist instead of a female, but I didn't know it would be a homoerotic psychological thriller, which is worlds apart from the original Swan Lake narrative.

Instead of a pumpkin-turned-carriage,
Cinder to the ball in a motorcycle sidecar!

In any case, I loved his Swan Lake and decided to see his CInderella. I tried to not find out too much about the ballet so as to keep the surprise up, but I did read the synopsis - celebrating the 70th anniversary of the London Blitz, Bourne made 1940 the setting of his Cinderella. The skeleton framework of the Cinderella fairytale is still there - the evil stepmother, evil stepsisters, handsome romantic love interest, the stroke of midnight, the faerie god-figure, the happily-ever-after. Those were about it though. Cinderella (Cin) has a very large family: not just the three evil steps, but her father's still alive (an invalid here) and she has a bunch of crazy, perverted stepbrothers (Bourne seems to enjoy creating sexually uninhibitive characters).

The three acts all start off with clear reminders of the setting: Act 1 and 3 both begin with the sound of air raid sirens, then by hilarious newsreels of 'what to do in an air raid' (typically shown before main film features in mid-20th century). Act 2 scarily opens with the unexpected sound of the bomb: you really are quite immersed in the time period because of all those features, and also, a lot of 'period sounds' are present in the score. Bourne definitely tempers with Prokofiev's music, but it is done extremely tastefully (well, as tasteful as adding siren sounds to classical music can ever be). Prokofiev's music is quite haunting and poetic, and Bourne keeps that aspect up in most of his choreography. The dance moves are quite unusual at times though, and I couldn't tell what the references are. Perhaps West Side Story, perhaps some strange form of 40s swing dancing.

In another gender-breaking move, he makes the faerie godmother a godfather, and his choreography is very much like a swan's (like Bourne's Swan Lake). The faerie dancer looks a bit like this guy ... maybe he's modelled after him?

What I like about Bourne's ballets is that the line between reality and fantasy is often blurred. In Cinderella, it is quite hard to tell whether what you're watching is a dream sequence or a real one. The scenes often unfold, sometimes achronologically, in a way that does not allow you to pin down the context. For example, Act 2 starts with the thundering sound of the bomb, and the curtains open up to a ballroom scene totally devastated by the bomb, presumably. But within minutes, the faerie comes and reverses time, so that the ballroom is in pristine order. Then the conventional storyline unveils (girl meets boy, girl dances with boy, midnight strikes ... she loses her beautiful ballgown), but then once midnight passes, the scene switches back to a warzone with Cinder injured, and you wonder whether the romantic scene happened at all. Was it all a dream? Did they really have sex after midnight? Does it matter though?

Everything is so seamless, so magical, that it is no longer important to figure out whether we are seeing the real or the artificial. I was mesmerised by the humour, by the sexual openness, by the differences between the original and this version, and finally, by the references to real life London (Act 3 has an Underground scene, then a Thames riverbank scene, and ends in Paddington Station).

Last but not least, my favourite scene: it has to be the part when Cinder re-imagines meeting her 'prince' - an amnesiac RAF (ha!). She starts dancing with a seamstress' mannequin, happily and energetically twirls behind the curtains, and then re-emerges with the real life RAF man! I love it. What a wonderful moment of magic-realism. And then they dance together, but after a while, we are made aware of the dream element because their dance starts to become stilted. The man would stop picking her up, move mechanically like a mannequin, etc etc. So funny! And then of course, it ends with the man turning back into the dummy.

Beautiful! You can see a short clip here for yourself:

PS: read my review of Bourne's latest ballet: Sleeping Beauty