Hwæt

After the over-whelming success of a post titled in Russian – I have never experienced silence like it – I have taken a different path through the complex manifold of spacetime in my hunt for today’s moniker.  I’ve stuck with the lingua franca of my current location, but have travelled back through time (you may wish to imagine a harp-based glissando at this point) to the heyday of the kingdom of Wessex and called upon the ghost of Anglo-Saxon or Old English.  Out of the goodness of my heart (I store all my virtues in a pump of some description – my humility is held in an old ballet shoe), I have spared you the Runic version (but this will only prove a brief respite for the regular reader).

We have a curious relationship with the Anglo-Saxon, using it to name an economic system which would be anathema to a housecarl or thegn.  It is not even used by those descendants of the Angles or Saxons who chose to stay at home, but only by those who left and were later subject to the Danelaw and Norman conquest (secondhand Vikings in all but name).  I really feel that economists could have put more effort into finding a better adjective – it is not as though they have covered themselves in glory with the meat of their subject, so a little time off considering their nomenclature might have benefitted us all.

But why is the old duffer using Anglo-Saxon in the first place and what the Sam Hill does the title mean?  Parsing backwards through that last sentence, the title can have a number of meanings, the Anglo-Saxons liked to sweat their lexical assets, but I’m using it in the sense of “listen” or “hark”.

Today is Bloomsday, but I find myself at some distance from Dublin’s fair city (where the girls are – allegedly – so pretty and, according to the WHO, more than 80% of them will be obese by 2030) though I may yet sample a pint of the black stuff in its honour.  I have never read Ulysses (always more of a fan of Odysseus as a boy, in fact Greek myth over the Roman derivative every time) but still know that the book’s characters have recourse to language described as Anglo-Saxon on a regular basis.  However, this is not the reason for the title – but did tilt the balance of my mind to thoughts about writing (and the good stuff, not just this nonsense).

One of the two books acquired on Sunday was Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf – a work I have been meaning to acquire for many, many years (though less than fifteen it would seem).  Whilst I shouldn’t really be starting it yet, I couldn’t resist a quick peek at the opening stanzas – and I don’t think it is going to disappoint (despite the years of anticipation – all my own fault).  Even better, for the first page (and only that page) the translation is accompanied by the original in Anglo-Saxon.  The first word of the epic is hwæt – and hence we have our title.  I have never studied Anglo-Saxon, but can recognise a thorn (from my time in Iceland) and an eth (did she ever marry Ron?) when I see them and, with a little creative fudging via German, I can have a go at reading a few stanzas in an approximation to the original language.  Even in this hopelessly amateurish form and with my voice (which others may appreciate, but is hopelessly commonplace to me), it sounds incredible – you can immediately understand why it might have survived for so long.  I find myself prey to a strange urge to learn Anglo-Saxon – so many enthusiasms, so little time!

Words were very much the currency last night at 451 – the regularly poetry night at the Nuffield.  As well as a swathe of open-mikers we had headline sets from Jemima Foxtrot and Stephen Morrison-Burke (that rarest of creatures: the boxer-poet).  Coupled with my recent listening to The Verb‘s close reading of the Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock this has reminded me of how incredibly varied and powerful poetry can be.  It has also suggested that I may have misjudged T S Eliot by basing my opinion solely on the musical Cats – perhaps not entirely typical of his full body of work?

Finally, this morning between breakfast and serious foundational training for my life as a gymnast, I found myself with a few minutes in hand.  So, I read the next short story from All the Rage – in the mere nine pages of These Small Pieces, A L Kennedy reduced me to tears.  It might be thought that tears before 10am are not a good thing, but the universe is having those few minutes back over my dead body (and I fully intend to rise from my grave and continue the fight, if necessary).

Given the number of written (or spoken) works deserving my attention far exceeds my ability to consume them (unless the singularity arrives a lot earlier than I’m expecting), I sometimes wonder why I do anything else.  I think the answer must lie in the need to reflect on, and recover from, writing of quality and power.  My poor brain cannot accept such rich input too often without suffering even greater degeneration than is already evident.  Plus, I’m both too tall and physically graceless to swoon with any style (and, more importantly, injury-free).  Once again, it seems the therapeutic effect of GofaDM (on me, if no-one else) is laid bare.

Philology

From my very limited grasp of the Greek language (I still feel that any gala should involve a celebration of milk), I believe the title should refer to a love of words.  Mr Collins is rather drier in his definition going with “comparative and historical linguistics” or, more broadly, a “study of literature”.  He also notes that it is no longer in scholarly use – so ideal for GofaDM!

So far as I know, I have always loved words.  As a tiny, wee nipper I would insist that any text within my visual field was read out to me – or so my mother tells me.  As a result, she took advice from my aunt (a teacher) on how to teach me to read (earlier than was then the norm) in the hope that this might shut me up.  In the whole field of human endeavour, this may be one of the least successful activities ever attempted – not only did it singularly fail to shut me up, my excessive loquacity has now spread to the medium of print and thus to your eyes, dear reader.

I still feel the need to read any print: despite any language barrier that may exist or any propriety that might be offended – I really need to control my urge to read other people’s tattoos (though my “worst” tattoo-related incident was studying a chap’s body art to try and work out which mes0-American culture it was pastiching: Olmec, I think).

This obsession with words might explain my vulnerability to my continuing theatre-addiction and explain something of the nature of the GofaDM.  The style of this blog may have little to commend it, but I do try to give otherwise neglected words a little bit of exercise and a brief glimpse of the sky.  I like to imagine a few readers now using some more obscure vocabulary in their everyday lives – no doubt to the dismay or confusion of their nearest and most expensive.

As was recently established, via the work of Antonio Serrano on The Verb, I can love words even when I can only understand a little of what is said and the position of the word boundaries.  In the recent In Our Time on Rabindranath Tagore, one of the academics read a short extract from his early poem Sonar Tari (the Golden Boat) in its original Bengali.  This was amazing enough to cover my arms in goosebumps, despite my total ignorance of the language and not even knowing when one word ended and another began.  Subsequent research shows that Bengali is also a beautiful language to look at, though again means nothing to my uneducated eyes.  It does look potentially confusing too, as a 4 looks like an 8 and a 7 like a 9: maybe I should work on my Greek first, at least they use the same numbers and via mathematics I know most of the alphabet.

However, the primary stimulus behind this post is A L Kennedy.  I have now read the first two stories in her latest collection, All The Rage.  I am rationing them as they are too rich to be consumed en masse.  The first, Late in Life, I more-or-less managed to read in her voice – or the best approximation that the voices in my head can achieve.  For the second, Baby Blue, I was stuck in my own voice for some reason – even though I had heard the author read a sizeable extract a couple of months back.  Despite the (OK, my) voice, the story is the most perfect piece of prose that I can imagine existing – every word is necessary and just the right one for its place.  I would wonder how she manages this, but I know she goes through hundreds of drafts which must be part of the reason – however, I could do that and get nowhere close to this standard of writing.  I’ve read very well-reviewed books, Nobel-Prize winners even, and many have been very good – but in none have the words achieved quite such an apotheosis.  Still, the fact I can at least recognise such excellence does give me hope (a very vague and distant hope) that I can construct an objective function against which to measure the deficiencies of my own writing and identify improvements (and plenty of these literary fruit should be suspended pretty close to terra firma).  However, this paragraph does demonstrate with irritating precision my inability to fully convey my own thoughts as I would wish – though perhaps I’m not alone. One of the many positive, professional reviews of All The Rage says that it “celebrates love like a hungry dog celebrates the corpse of a rabbit”.  Perhaps I need to more fully embrace the metaphor and not just for (weak) comic effect or in chronic over-extension.

I wonder if this embrace of the short story and poetry might be an indicator of incipient adulthood (though, if I’m honest, I really don’t think I can pull off a hood – style-wise I mean, this is not a comment on the lack of flexibility in my shoulders) – or have a just discovered my teenage angst a mere three decades too late?

Meeting your heroes

The activity suggested by today’s title is somewhat contraindicated by proverbial wisdom: though I would have thought this would depend on the nature of both your heroes and the proposed encounter.

I don’t think that I have “heroes” in the traditional sense – whilst I clearly aspire to be other than I am, this is a yearning for a generic other rather than to acquire aspects of a specific other.  This may be down to a failure of imagination (a theory that GofaDM readers will find it easy to accept) or perhaps an acceptance of my lack of potential.  It also reflects my understanding (one which seems wholly absent from the media) that being heroic in one aspect of life does not (and probably can not) mean heroic in all: even if we could agree what that might mean.  To the extent I have heroes, they are also drawn from a slightly different pool than is probably typical: usually academics and writers, rather than the more typical celebrity aspirational targets.

In a desperate effort to keep the conceit of this post alive I will admit that there are many people who evince abilities that I find impressive (and often, frankly, magical).  In very local news, the latest follower of this blog (who would seem either to have some recent Greek heritage or be a major Hellenophile unafraid to use a Deed Poll) is a far better writer than I will ever be: his angry, funny tale of a painful coat-carrying incident does lead me to wonder why he is following this rubbish.  Still, GofaDM will offer refuge to any comers (whatever my views on their sanity): an idealised Ellis Island of the web (if you like).

Last week, I was uncharacteristically excited about the chance to meet someone (relatively) famous – and so was clearly setting myself up for disappointment (which to destroy any narrative tension, did not occur).  I have been a fan of A L Kennedy since hearing her on the much maligned Quote, Unquote many years ago.  It can’t remember what it was that drew me to her then, though the Dundee accent may well have been involved.  However, her reputation in my eyes has been cemented by her performances on A Point of View – which are incredibly well-written and read.  Usually, I cook (or do some other physical activity) while listening to spoken-word podcasts, but with A L Kennedy I have to concentrate fully on the words.  I think she may be my favourite contributor to the strand – and this is against a very strong field.  I’ve only read one of her volumes of short stories, which may have been a little too adult for me (and not in terms of an 18 rating) – but which were amazingly well written.

Anyway, the Nuffield offered a chance to see her live (long “i”, though she did also manage the short “i” version) as part of their Writers in Conversation series and so off I cycled through the drizzle to meet an almost hero.  As so often with the famous, Alison is much smaller in person than she seems on the radio – but less commonly, even lovelier.  She read a chunk from her latest volume, All the Rage (which as a result I now own, but have yet to read and really want the voice in my head to attempt the A L Kennedy delivery when I do) and then we had an hour’s Q&A session.  This was really fascinating – even to a lousy writer like me.  Given that even in my most serious writing phase (preparing my well-regarded Open University assignments) I used only three (major) drafts, the fact that every page of her books will have gone through more than 100 drafts indicated a whole different level of commitment to the result (and one which will not be applied to GofaDM any time soon!).  In answering my(!) question, she mentioned that aPoV is in the old Alistair Cooke slot and what an honour it was to be asked to fill it.  She mentioned a particular Letter from America dating to the first performance of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue – and as a result, I have had to buy a book of his (Cooke’s) writings.  Oscar Wilde may have been able to resist everything except temptation but while I’m generally less easily led into temptation, when it comes to books (in the words of the Borg) resistance is futile.

I am always pleasantly surprised by how much fun one can have for a fiver (or less) at the Nuffield – and elsewhere, for that matter: last week I also saw both Joe Lycett and Stuart Goldsmith do an hour of work-in-progress stand-up (though Mr Goldsmith in particular seemed to have little need for further progress) for the same modest sum at the Pleasance in Islington.  The downside (for me) is after these cheap events I then feel the need to blow many times the cost of entry on (often quite tangentially) related books (or supporting the institution so it can continue to offer such loss-leaders).

This talk of heroes led me to wonder if anyone considers the author in this context.  I would certainly hope not, I live with the fool and can assure you there is nothing heroic about him.  However, I did discover yesterday that an employee of a local tyre company (who had apparently witnessed some of my physical jerks) refers to me as “the silver fox” – not an epithet I have ever aspired to, but I think it was meant as a compliment.  I suppose he could just be referring to the fact that I am going grey and am often to be found going through other people’s bins – but I’m going to cling to a more positive interpretation.