Labial kinetics

At some point, as they learn to read, the vast majority of children become capable of following a text without speaking out loud and then without even moving their lips.  Given that my childhood has now vanished, coughing, into the pea-souper of history, I had fondly imagined that I too had mastered this particular skill.  So it was that, yesterday evening, I suffered the most impertinent of awakenings.  On mature reflection (or as mature as my essential childishness permits), I realised that there had been portents in existence for some time for those with the wit to interpret them.

Before the few, tiny quanta of respect GofaDM readers still retain for the author melt back into the foaming medium of space-time, I should make clear that I can read the phrase “bottle of beer” without resort to the hard sound associated with the letter G and with my mouth remaining tightly shut (well, except as required for breathing).  Indeed, I can read the vast majority of novels, web-pages and many a treatise on science or the humanities without recourse to my oscular musculature.  However, there are three major areas of exception to my otherwise condign mastery of this somewhat basic text processing skill.

1.  Foreign vocabulary

The voices in my head are entirely confident when reading my mother tongue, but sometimes require a little help with words taken from another language.  When I was reading a lot of Spanish, this task could also be accomplished while my lips slept – though given its current, very rusty status, the language of Cervantes might require a little help these days.  For a really unfamiliar tongue, one where I am feeling my way through the words and experimenting with possible pronunciations, I may even need to give voice (sotto voce) to the sounds.

2.  Dialect and accents

If the text requires the use of a strong dialect or a strong accent, then the unaided voices in my head can struggle to do it justice.  Sometimes a little labial motion or even voicing of the text can help – though, anyone who has seen me attempt an accent will recognise that this voicing may be counterproductive.  I can produce accents other than my own, but normally I have no idea what they will be until they have emerged, blinking into the world of sound – and often, not even then.  Even if the accent is recognisable, it will rarely have been what was intended – and, as a result, I try not to reveal the nature of the intended accent and just claim any available credit for the one that eventually issues forth from twixt my lips.

The same issue can occur if I am trying to recapture the sound or cadences of the author’s voice, as I have recently tried with A L Kennedy, Adam Gopnik and David Sedaris.

3.  Poetry

The voices in my head are terrible reciters of poetry – perhaps a lack of experience tells against them.  They make a total hash of anything with metrical form, specific patterns of stress or alliteration or the use of caesura.  in consequence, to gain anything like the full heft of a poem, my lips must move and often my voice must be fully engaged.

Last night, I foolishly attempted to read Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf in a relatively well-lit public space whilst waiting for a gig to start.  This, staying true to many of the precepts of Anglo-Saxon poetry, runs almost the full gamut of poetic devices and so my lips were in near constant motion.  An important lesson was learned!  In future, I shall only read this work in the privacy of my own home or while wearing a suitable poetry-reading mask: i.e. one which conceals (at least) the lower third of my face from view.  I wonder if this could be an accessory to accompany my earlier development of Bookshop Blinkers™?  From a branding perspective, I think I’d want my Verse Vail™ to avoid a look overly reminiscent of either a surgeon or dandy highwayman – then again, given that many a performance poet will stand to deliver his stanzas, the latter might be appropriate…

Acme: New and Improved

It always feels good to title a post with multiple oxymorons.  As is becoming a habit, this post will be made up of addenda to its predecessor.  As an artist, there is always the challenge of knowing when a work is finished – but I do try to keep to within 1000 words for a single post: just one measure of the compassion I feel (sorry, fake) for you, dear reader.

Among the candidates for summary crucifixion that I considered before breakfast was Wile E Coyote.   He was never going to receive my vote as he is a personal hero – albeit one let down by his supplier on numerous occasions.  Modern Olympians could learn from Mr Coyote’s dedication and commitment to his project, even after truly terrible set-backs his resolve never weakened.  An inspiration for us all, I think you must agree.

This started me thinking about the Acme Corporation.  Given the very well-publicised issues with its products, I would assume that it is languishing in Chapter 11 administration and in need of a white knight to come to its rescue.  I have for some time been seeking a way to monetise this drivel so that I can retire to the life of luxury I so clearly deserve.  Yesterday, an idea for a new product which could be the saving of Acme (and the keys to the gravy train for me) sprang, unbidden, to my mind – and as part of the viral marketing campaign (or should I go fungal?) to come, I thought I’d share the basics with you.

I found myself with a few minutes to kill before dinner, after unusually swift translation from West Dulwich to Oxford Circus by the combined forces of Southeastern and TfL.  As is all too common, I frittered this time away in Foyles – though frankly, it would be cheaper just to give my wallet to the first ne’er-do-well I encountered.  To minimise the fiduciary risk, I tried to retain crystalline focus on my objective – in this case the poetry department – and not fall prey to the temptation that lay, wantonly, all around me.

Why the poetry department, you may wonder.  Well I blame the combined forces of Ian McMillan and my blog-brother.  Perhaps luckily, they lacked any work by Francisco Serrano – even in translation (and I was after the Spanish) – but they did have the Selected Works of Fernando Pessoa.  I just sampled the first two stanzas of Tabacaria (the Tobacco Shop)  and I knew I was lost.  I learned that (a) I must own this book and (b) I must never read it in public.

Anyway, as I tried desperately not to be distracted from my “prize”, I realised what it was that I needed.  Every decent human being will sometimes need a set of Bookshop Blinkers™ to keep their eyes from straying from their target and towards all the tempting morsels immodestly left lying around by pimpish booksellers.  I’m thinking these would be offered in a range of colours and finishes and, perhaps for the more adventurous or shameless reader, in wipe clean leather or neoprene.

Am I a genius or what?  Easy Street here I come…

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.

Meet me in St Louis

I should start be making clear that I have never been to St Louis, I have no current plans to visit and have little faith in my ability to find it on a map (though could probably pinpoint it to within 1000 miles or so – which would require an absolutely massive pin).

No, last night was my second Playdate – this time a read-through of Tennessee Williams’ play The Glass Menagerie.  This is set in St Louis – well, within a single rather poky apartment in St Louis.  As the bar was full of mermaids (or I think that’s what they said), it was held in a meeting room at the University Club (which is much less exciting than I’ve made it sound – far fewer over-stuffed leather armchairs than I would want in a Club).  For a free gig, it is astoundingly good value – nearly 3.5 hours of entertainment with wine and softer drinks provided gratis.  This time we – the assembled throng – introduced ourselves and so I discovered that everyone else in the room was an actor, director or playwright.  As mere “audience” I felt somewhat of a fraud, though comfort myself with the fact that, in some way, I fund everyone else’s career.

Actually, I also felt somewhat of a fraud at the Nuffield the previous week when I attended 451 (their regular poetry night) and discovered that I was almost the only audience member not performing poetry.  Despite my limited qualifications and complete lack of preparation, one of my poems was read out during the evening.  In the interval, we all had to write a short poem on the subject “Manifesto” and mine was one of the top four (and so read aloud): oh yes, people – be very afraid! –  as I now I have reason to believe that I’m an actual poet!  Given that I have all the emotional development of a teenage boy, expect GofaDM to be taken over by my angst-ridden poesy in the near future.  However, this validation was not the evening’s highlight, even for your self-obsessed narrator – no that was the excellent set by Kate Fox, which would have made the whole evening worthwhile just for the phrase “binge thinking” which graced one of her poems.

But, let’s return to St Louis and such plot as I am willing to provide to this post.  As my first exposure to Mr Williams’ oeuvre I was rather impressed by The Glass Menagerie – though it is not a cheery tale – and surprised to find the title can be taken literally (it is not a metaphor).  Despite the strong competition from actual actors, I was able to play Tom (now) during the first half and had an absolute ball.  Those who follow me on Facebook (or is follow the wrong verb?  Those who poke me on Facebook?) will know that I was wondering whether to attempt the full southern accent – and those who know me in person, will further wonder if I did essay the accent whether anyone else would (a) know and (b) recognise it.  In the end, I didn’t go for the full “Gone with the Wind” but I did modify my normal speaking voice to add a bit of a drawl and move my speech rhythms and pronunciation a little closer to what I imagined would be authentic (and I was given a lot of background to the character by Sam, the director).  This did force the young lad playing Tom (then) – who in play terms was 6 years my junior, but in real life nearer 26 – to also hazard a somewhat American accent (which I thought was a result).  Given the actual nature of the play, I’m glad I rejected my other plan which was to attend wearing a sweat-stained wife-beater (more Streetcar than Menagerie, as it transpired).

I continue to think I make for a rather good actor at a first reading – for a start, I’m rather better at sight-reading than most people (based, I will admit, on a rather limited sample). In fact, my biggest worry about my own performance was that my German pronunciation of the word “Berchtesgaden” was far too accurate for an American youth in 1943.  However, I strongly suspect that by a second or third reading, real actors would improve their performance significantly whilst mine will remain largely unimproved (though I would fudge my German a little more).  Despite this, the lure of the stage is very strong!

After the read-through, we had a very interesting discussion about the play and its themes and characters.  The Nuffield will be staging The Glass Menagerie later this year, and I now find I have very strong views about various aspects of the play – particularly, the meaning of Jim (who, unusually, I am not worried about – a reference there for the Mrs Dale’s Diary fans, who have been cruelly neglected in recent years).

And did those feet?

In case any readers were worried about my turgid ankles and left foot (as if), I can re-assure them that, after a mere 18 hours back home, they have deflated and returned to normal (or at least, normal for me – a bit like NFN, I suppose).  It seems my potential new career as a gymnast is over before it has even begun.

However, even without things swelling ‘down below’, feet have been much on my mind of late.  How so? I fondly imagine that I hear you cry, well let me explain…

Whilst ‘festing’ up north, I had with me my trusty FiveFingers shoes – though only wore them on relatively dry days given the rather feeble resistance they mount to the ingress of water.  Let me tell you, they attracted a number of admiring comments from both locals and visitors, young and not-so-young alike.  At one of my final gigs, when I – fearing rain – was wearing a more traditional shoe (along with its fraternal sibling), a young chap entered and sat almost next to me wearing a pair of FiveFingers.  Not just any old FiveFingers, but the exact same model (Bikila) and colour-scheme (light grey and red) as mine.  This chap laughed in the face of wet feet (I know, I asked him), and so wore his even more often than I wear mine.  I am no longer alone!  I suppose I need to seek out some even more obscure footwear now to regain my evanescent sense of individuality in this homogenised, corporate world.

Feet have also been on my mind as I am reading “The Ode Less Travelled” by Stephen Fry.  This is designed to help the reader unleash their inner poet – so be afraid, be very afraid!  This blog has heretofore lacked prosody, but that (relatively) golden age could soon be at an end.  In the all too near future, I could be giving you all the big iamb.  There are so many feet to choose from: iambic, anapaestic, trochee, spondee or pyrrhic to name but a few (and wouldn’t these all be great names for shoes?).  What metrical scheme to pick?

One of my last gigs was to see Luke Wright, a relatively local (Colchester) poet perform – further cementing my middle-class credentials.  He really is very good – with some seriously fine balladry.  His set also contained a short introduction to the meter of the ballad, use of the iambic foot and the fact that pentameter and anapaests are only for showing off (which does make them very tempting – but perhaps I should walk before I try running).  This was also the very same gig in which I met the chap wearing Bikilas. This goes beyond coincidence (reminding me of “Elastic Planet”, the splendid radio series by Ben Moor, and one of the inspirations for this blog): the universe has spoken – and I think it is telling me to blog in verse (or worse).  (Well, I suppose it could be telling me to visit a chiropodist – but that seems rather prosaic, which is – of course – the complete antithesis of poetry.)

You have been warned – prepare for the versed!