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 ...

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