The Vulgar Tongue

The Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue
Francis Grose

I love the English language. I’m sure other languages are wonderful too, but English is the only tongue I have any mastery of. Although, you could say that I don’t speak English properly: I am certainly ignorant of the rules of grammar and punctuation. However, I think that language, even the written language, should be more than just adherence to rules, or correct usage. I’m sure a computer could generate correctly worded and punctuated prose.  I love slang and swear words and idioms and proverbs, dialect and colloquialisms.

I come from the Black Country, which is an area rich in slang words – tranklements, hoss road, donnies… faggots and pays.  I haven’t been back there for many years and my daughter sometimes asks me to speak in Black Country, but I find that I have forgotten how.  I just remember one overheard phrase, shouted from one old man to another, outside Brierley Hill market: “Orlroit chap yow bin shappin’?”.  Other Midlanders call us ‘yammies’, perhaps because of the elision of the word “I” and “am” to the more convenient “yam”?

I especially miss talking to people of my Nan’s generation, whose speech was full of colloquialisms, but also strange sayings and turns of phrase, such as lines from old musical hall songs.  I don’t think there are many people of her age left to chat with now.

Anyway, this dictionary of the vulgar tongue from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is a bostin’ read.  I particularly like “apple dumpling shop” and “dairy” in reference to a woman’s bosom.  I find the words inspiring – a “prigger of prancers” is far more interesting than ‘horse thief’, don’t you think?

I once wrote a poem in criminal cant – I’m sure you can find it, if you can be bothered to look.  If you don’t like it, then you can kiss my cooler, you clumpish cove.

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The Grass Arena

The Grass Arena: an autobiography
John Healy

Did I enjoy this autobiography?  No, not really.  However, I’m glad that I read it, despite the fact that it is relentlessly grim.

From violent childhood, to lonely adulthood – via the gladiatorial arena of Euston Park, where winos live from one drink to the next and will slash your throat with a broken bottle for no good reason – there is little to smile about in this book.  Even Healy’s redemption through chess, his years of sobriety and success as an author are tinged with a sense of melancholy.

Healy is obviously a very damaged person and started drinking as a teenager, out of sense of social awkwardness and to numb the physical pain of a back injury.  It was also a result of the frequent violence inflicted on him by his father.

I was thinking today, how an abusive childhood becomes inscribed upon the body.  The resulting shame, anxiety and fear can manifest themselves physically as well as psychologically, in tics, poor posture and unattractive mannerisms.  People who were abused as children are also likely to develop unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as addictions, thus significantly shortening their life expectancy. (An ACE (Adverse Childhood Experience) score above 6 could mean a decrease in life expectancy of twenty years, according to one study in the USA).

I don’t blame John Healy, but instead think, there but for the grace of God go I.  I first got drunk when I was eleven and drank alcohol through my teens and twenties; binge drinking myself unconscious on a regular basis.  Though, to be honest, I don’t think this counts as unusual behaviour – everyone else was doing it too.  Fortunately, despite an ACE score of 10 out of 10, I didn’t take to drinking wine, meths and surgical spirits and end up living in a hole, or going in and out of prison.

Healy has a real talent for writing and a number of passages will stay with me, such as his description of him and his wino ‘raspberry ripple’ mates drinking meths diluted with water from a toilet.

We’d jump the tube, George leading the way with his one eye (lost the other in a fight over a bottle of wine. Maybe that’s why he only drank jake now); Ernie next with only one hand (lost the other with gangrene). Me hobbling along behind with my fucked-up head and body. We’d cut the jake with pisshole water.

I’m not sure what happened to Healy in later life, although I think there was a documentary made about him recently.  I hope he has eventually known some happiness, whether through chess or writing, but I sense he never really became comfortable enough in himself to overcome his early tribulations and develop any deep relationships.  At the end of The Grass Arena, he is disappointed that his attraction to a middle class woman never goes anywhere, due to his inability to shake off the survival instincts which have become part of his personality:

[T]he Countess and her world were totally beyond my reach. It wasn’t just the money and education, more the personality and feelings. Mine were hyped up and geared to attacking and warding off threats, so even the most innocent question worried or startled me.

The trouble is, once you have spent years honing your survival mechanisms, it’s difficult to persuade yourself that you no longer need them.

 

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine
Gail Honeyman

I read this novel, wondering if its author had ever met me.  Mind you, I think that whenever I read something where the main protagonist is socially inept or is on the autistic spectrum.  Eleanor Oliphant is certainly an unusual character, and if you read this book, wondering if anyone with such a deficit of interpersonal skills could really manage to get through life, then I can assure that they do.  To me, social interactions just seems like navigating a minefield – something I do as quickly as possible and only if I have no choice in the matter.  My daughter tells me that all you have to do is ‘act the part’ and I think that’s the problem for people like me and Eleanor Oliphant; with us, what you see is what you get.  Call me Ruth Ronseal.

Anyway, this novel seems deserving of its debut novel accolade.  If it was a record, then I’d describe it as easy listening.  I read it in a day, because I was genuinely interested in Eleanor’s story and felt some investment in a positive outcome for her.  It’s laugh out loud funny in places, although occasionally somewhat implausible.

I certainly enjoyed it more than Jojo Moyes’ writing and it reminded me of a less literary Behind the Scenes at the Museum.  I’ve recommended it to my daughter and would say that if you enjoyed The Rosie Project, then you would probably appreciate this entertaining novel too.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

The Unbearable Lightness of Being a Prawn Cracker
Will Self

When I was eighteen I harboured ambitions to become a sculptor.  In spite of my lack of talent in that area, I was taking all of the necessary steps to become one: gaining an ‘A’ Level in Art, studying Fine Art at college… but I still had nagging doubts regarding my aptitude.  It didn’t help that my tutor had already labelled me “The Stan Laurel of the Sculpture World” due to my natural clumsiness and tendency to burst into tears, when my creations inevitably collapsed in a heap.  Anyway, what eventually put paid to the idea, was a trip to the Rodin Museum in Paris.  Such was Rodin’s incredible talent, I decided that attempting to follow in his footsteps was a complete waste of time.  Hence, I’m now an invoice clerk.

The reason I’m sharing this tale of woe, is that if I was eighteen and had my heart set on becoming a journalist, then reading Will Self’s collection of food journalism would completely put me off the idea.  Really, why bother?  There’s probably no chance that you could write anything as remotely entertaining and erudite.  I don’t think Will Self has ever written a boring sentence.

That’s just me, though.  I’m a bit negative.  I was trying to think of a metaphor for my life and decided that I was treading water, attempting not to drown, but doing so with the fake smile of a synchronised swimmer plastered on my face.  I find synchronised swimmers creepy by the way, there’s something weird about doing things in formation, North Korean style, while wearing loads of make-up – like a troop of communist Esther Williams.

The reason I was reading the Unbearable Lightness of Being a Prawn Cracker, was that it was the early hours of New Year’s Day and I was hungry, but too lazy to get out of bed.  I was flicking through Kindle and decided to click on the lovely cerise pink Penguin icon, which reminded me of a packet of Walkers’ prawn cocktail crisps.

My brother briefly worked in a Chinese restaurant as a teenager and seemed a little traumatised by the experience.  I’m not sure why, but I remember he was upset that the deep fried seaweed is no such thing – it’s just shredded cabbage, it has never even seen the ocean.

Happy New Year.

 

 

 

 

Cars

There’s a popular myth (perpetuated by poets who are serial driving-test failures) that poets can’t – even shouldn’t – drive. Not only is this untrue, but it’s pernicious. Because driving is a fundamentally poetic activity – ritualistic, solipsistic, liberating. And great poets not only drive, they write about driving.

Edgelands, Paul Farley

Somewhere In CaliforniaI can’t drive, but I could write an autobiography based on my relationship with cars.  Starting with the old Morgan in our garage; my dad tinkering with it, his hands covered in oil and then green with Swarfega.  Or perhaps starting even before that: the police escort to a Birmingham hospital in the middle of the night (but I’m not sure that story of my dad getting pulled over on the way to the maternity unit is even true).

When I say I can’t drive, that’s not strictly true.  I’ve driven loads of cars: an old VW Beetle, Mini Metros, Vauxhall Corsas, a Mercedes-Benz (that was like driving a huge comfy sofa) and for any boy racers who happen to be reading: a Ford Sierra RS Cosworth. Nice eh?  I’ve just never passed my driving test.

I’ve been driven all round France, Florida, California, New Zealand, England, Scotland and Wales (but never Ireland). That photograph is of me, aged sixteen, somewhere in California.  I remember vividly the dust between my bare toes and the Cheetos dust underneath my fingernails.  I also remember the stares I got, on account of my shaved head.

I wonder if I’ll ever go on another road trip?  If not, then perhaps I’ll write about the ones I’ve already been on.

In other news: I have now read 52 books this year.

Edgelands

I’m only halfway through Edgelands by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, but it’s really resonating with me.  I remember the first time that I heard the term ‘liminal’, meaning a space on the threshold or edge; it was during a photography lecture at university.  It immediately struck a chord, as I knew it was the sort of place where I grew up, and have consequently always been attracted to since.

When I could afford a fancy camera, my favourite activity was to walk the streets of the town where I now live, looking for ‘non places’ to photograph.  I’m also attracted to the English seaside, that most liminal of spaces – the more run down and neglected, the better.  Anyway, if you follow the link to the blog below, you can see some of my favourites.  I have lots of dead blogs – I can never remember where I’ve put them.

Edgelands is definitely a celebration of neglected spaces, in fact it tends towards nostalgia and whimsy.  I don’t mind that – I’m quite nostalgic for the building sites, wastelands, canals and feeder pools of my youth.  I had a look at my home town on Google Earth today and couldn’t get my bearings.  I used to wander aimlessly as a child and I tried to follow my route past the goods depot and factories, through the Blackie Waggon and along the cut.  Cut being a local Black Country word for canal.  I used to walk the towpath of the Stourbridge Canal after school, sometimes because I was being chased home by bullies.  It was clogged with weeds and shopping trolleys, but it seemed picturesque to me.

Google Earth gives us a God’s eye view, which reveals what I already knew – the area where I grew up is an urban sprawl, where towns merge into each other.  But that doesn’t mean there are no boundaries.  The locals know the delineation of every border, where one territory ends and another begins, without referring to any maps. In fact, there is a lovely phrase used in Gornal to describe outsiders (which could include someone who lives just up the road, but not in Gornal) – “from off”.

I’m from off.  You’re most likely from off too.

Review of 2017

When should I publish my review of the year?  It seems too early, but I’m working tomorrow and I probably won’t have time to write.  To be honest, it hasn’t been much of a year for reading anyway.  I only managed to read 51 books, which isn’t even one a week.  The fact that it’s an odd number really irritates me for some reason, perhaps I can squeeze in another book before New Year’s Eve?

Today I bought two poetry books completely at random.  I was waiting for a friend and it is lethal for me to hang around in a book shop.  I bought Plum by Hollie McNish and The Art of Falling by Kim Moore.  Don’t worry, this doesn’t mean I am going to start writing awful poetry again, I’d just like to read more of it in 2018.

Poetry

Sunshine by Melissa Lee-Houghton was the poetry book I enjoyed reading the most in 2017.  It’s very raw, confessional stuff – a bit crazy ex-girlfriend.  I’m sure she’ll love me for saying that.

Non-Fiction

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell was the first thing I’ve ever read about the Spanish Civil War, although I met Jack Jones a few times, who fought against Fascism as a soldier in the International Brigades.  Please don’t test me on it – my terrible memory means I’m very bad at history.  It’s a book that every serious person should have read by now.

Fiction

Well, this year belongs to H G Wells.  Someone I should have read as a child, but unfortunately I didn’t have access to many books.  I loved War of the Worlds and The Island of Dr Moreau and could quite happily read them again right this minute, only I have a TBR pile that’s about two feet tall, precariously balanced next to my bed.

If this was a school report, it would say Ruth, “must try harder”.  I’ll try to improve my reading score in 2018.

 

 

 

Digital Underworld

The Dark Net: Inside the Digital Underworld
Jamie Bartlett

The title of this book is slightly deceptive, though I think it was chosen for valid marketing reasons: it sounds mysterious and sinister.  However, although it does touch on the darknet – a deep web that is accessed via a Tor browser and relies on encryption for secrecy – I would say that it is more of a description of the internet’s dark underbelly.  A world that can easily accessed by anyone with an ordinary internet browser.

I mean, anyone with Tumblr, YouTube or Twitter can easily find all kinds of pornography, extreme political views and various types of self-harm, without even looking for it. I regularly get all sorts of weird stuff popping up on my screen, completely unsolicited, and bearing no relation to the kinds of accounts I actively follow.

I have seen the pro-ana community firsthand, simply by having a Tumblr blog and one of them liking my post.  In case you don’t know, pro-ana is a movement of mostly teenage girls who encourage each other in their pursuit of extreme thinness, or anorexia.  If you’re the parent of a young woman, then you will find this chapter of the book particularly troubling.  In fact, you’ll find all of it troubling, as Jamie Bartlett uncovers the ease with which one can access drugs, child pornography (images of children being sexually abused, I’d prefer to say), suicide discussion boards and various other unhealthy things.

A fact that Bartlett himself acknowledges:

I came to realise that the unspoken truth about the dark net – whether it’s closed groups with password barriers, or Tor Hidden Services with its drugs markets and child pornography – is that everything is close to the surface.

Towards the end of the book, there is a discussion of two polarised responses to the internet: on the one hand the Transhumanists who actually wish to integrate themselves with computer technology, and on the other, the Anarcho-Primitivists, who want to smash it all up and go back to hunter-gathering (think of them as techno-Luddites).  I used to earn a living designing websites, so I’m definitely not in the latter camp, so I would just say that it’s best to be as well informed about your technological choices as you can be.

This book provides an interesting synopsis and I would recommend it as a starting point.  But hurry, it was written in 2014 and is therefore already out of date.

Postscript

I can’t seem to link to it, but Jamie Bartlett’s TED talk is worth looking at.  He posits the idea that we will all soon be using the darknet, because it allows greater privacy due to encryption.  Perhaps there is already a deeper darknet we don’t know about? If the current darknet becomes mainstream, then it seems obvious that those of us who want to buy guns, hire assassins, arrange for prostitutes to be delivered to a warehouse so we can make snuff films, and so on, will go deeper still.  (Not me, I don’t want to do that sort of thing).  It’s a sort of ‘circles of hell’ scenario!  Interesting stuff.  I wish I had more time to think about it, but I have to go and chat to my friend, drink tea and eat mince pies now.

 

 

It’s a Wonderful Life

There have been many moments this year, where I have felt that the world is going insane. This impression has been formed by what I see and read on social media and I often question whether I would be happier if I went offline.

Take this morning, for example.  I clicked on a link from Twitter, to an article by Noah Berlatsky, about the movie It’s a Wonderful Life.  I understand that this 1946 film, directed by Frank Capra and starring James Stewart, is something of an American Christmas tradition.  Not so for me.  I had never actually heard of the film until I was in my twenties and have always associated Christmas with annual screenings of The Wizard of Oz.

Some time in the 1990s, a few days before Christmas, I was at a loose end and It’s a Wonderful Life was showing at Cornerhouse in Manchester. I have a tendency to wear lots of black eyeliner and at the end of the film I emerged onto Oxford Road looking like a Victorian chimney sweep.  I had shed so many tears that lines of thick kohl and mascara had run down my cheeks and dripped in rivulets from my quivering chin.

I have probably watched it every Christmas since then, and it is scheduled for Christmas Eve viewing tomorrow with my daughter, along with The Bishop’s Wife, starring Cary Grant, David Niven and the beautiful Loretta Young.  We have already watched The Shop Around the Corner, which is another seasonal favourite.

I’m sure that none of these classic movies would meet with Noah Berlatsky’s approval and I find this very sad.  I’ve been to university and I know how tempting it is to view every piece of popular culture as something to be dissected, analysed and filtered though the lens of your particular ideology, but please realise that it is an incredibly tedious, killjoy thing to do.  Is it really how you want to live your life, examining cultural artefacts for signs of ‘wrong-think’?  I’d rather crack open the bottle of Vin Santo I’ve been saving and have a little cry on the sofa with my twelve-year-old, who fortunately still sees that life can be full of magic and romance and enjoys black and white films as much as her sentimental old mother.

Merry Christmas.