Sunday Salon ~ My Native Tongue

70757~Cafe-Mocha-PostersLast week in the Salon I was having a grumble about novelists who either felt the need to establish their credentials as researchers or who were not skilful enough to distinguish between material that was necessary for their story and detail that pushed the book from fiction to quasi-encyclopaedia entry.  In either case the result is a novel that is relatively top heavy in minutia and light on plot. In doing so, I quoted from Henry James, who wrote:

The historical novel is, for me, condemned.  You may multiply the little facts that can be got from pictures and documents…as much as you like, but the real thing is almost impossible to do…I mean the invention, the representation of the old consciousness of individuals in whose minds half the things that make ours, that make the modern world, were non-existent.

Starting out on the journey of my first Masters module this week, I found myself thinking that in fact, the opposite was true: that when we try to understand the cultural sensibility that allowed Shakespeare to flourish, we don’t have the slightest chance of coming close because the conditions that made it possible for him to thrive, that made the Elizabethan world the crucible of linguistic invention that it was, are now non-existent.

It was just half a sentence in the course materials that set me thinking this way, although I’ve given you the sentence before as well, to set the context.

It’s never easy to account for cultural change, for the emergence of the new, or for the way in which a particular set of social, historical circumstances lead to the development of specific art forms. The early modern period was characterised by developing use of the vernacular,

And there you have it.  We take the use of our native language for granted.  Not only do the major institutions of our time conduct their business in our mother tongue, but there are consistent moves made to ensure that as much confusing jargon as possible is removed, that we understand what the powers that govern our lives are about.  How can we ever begin to even imagine what it must have felt like back in the latter half of the sixteenth century to experience the shackles of legal and religious parlance falling away and to know the exhilaration of hearing for the first time the most important and influential factors in your life spoken about in your own language?

The English Language was being liberated and Shakespeare and his audience must have been relishing this in the same way as the growing child relishes the sudden freedom to explore territory previously denied to them.  The joy in discovering the possibilities that writing in his mother tongue afforded him is palpable in everything that Shakespeare wrote and must have been appreciated just as much by the audiences that came to see and hear his work performed.  The nearest that I can hope to come to this today is to try and imagine what it must be like to be a Welsh speaker here in the UK or a Basque speaker in Spain surrounded by a culture that may pay lip service to their language but which in every meaningful way makes using it on a daily basis for anything that encourages social enhancement almost impossible.

James may have felt that it was his advantages that got in the way of writing historical fiction.  For me it’s the other way round.  What might seem like an advantage on the surface, my ability to converse in my own tongue without even having to think about it, is in fact a disadvantage, because it robs me of the impetus to explore my language and makes it almost impossible to appreciate the intensity and the exhilaration of creating a new art form in the words that are spoken around me every day.

Published in: on October 4, 2009 at 9:54 am  Comments (10)  

Sunday Salon

70757~Cafe-Mocha-PostersOh Lord!  Sorry I haven’t been around these last couple of days.  My nightmare scenario happened at a preliminary meeting over at Stratford.  There was a major accident on the motorway on the way home and as a consequence the hour journey took nearer three.  And, as a consequence of that, my adrenalin problem kicked in and, well let’s just say you don’t want to know about the rest, because you really don’t!    I console myself by the fact that if things really do become impossible this is a degree that can be done by distance learning.  I don’t want to do it that way, but if I have to I will.  Nothing much to report from the meeting (this week and next it’s more administrative stuff than actual teaching) except that everyone seems formidably clever and incredibly confident.  I know enough about students to know that the latter, at least, is 90% bravado.  Most of them will be shaking in their boots as much as I am.

But, I did get a good tip from one woman to whom I spoke about a very good audio version of Richard II, which in the light of what we were talking about last week concerning the way in which Shakespeare’s audience would have listened to a play, I thought I would explore and see if just listening made a big difference.

The version about which she was so complimentary was the BBC Radio Production with Samuel West as Richard.  I’m not certain if those of you who are reading this outside the UK will know Sam West’s work, but let me just say that when I heard this existed I had to come home and discover if it was available anywhere because anything with West in it is a must in this household.  In fact, it is because Sam West is his namesake that Samuel Bear wants to grow up to be a Bear who is an actor. (Amongst many other things.  Samuel Bear is a Bear who wants to do everything; preferably yesterday.  Sometimes, living with Samuel Bear can be exhausting!)

The link I’ve given you is for the Audible Company.  I discovered them last week after deciding that I wanted to do more listening.  For £7.99 a month you can have one download whatever the actual price.  Sometimes that means a saving on shop bought CDs of over £50.  A deal not to be sniffed at.  We have already had our discounted download for this month and I’ll tell you about that another day, but as this Richard is only £8.99 I’m going to treat The Bears and we are all going to the theatre this evening.

I think Audible must have originated in the US, so if this is as good as my new colleague suggests then when I report back maybe you will be able to get a copy there if it appeals. I wonder, are there other companies like this around?  If anyone knows of any I’d be glad of a link.  As it is we have already decided on next month’s discount.  Little Dorrit is available at about 15% of the price I would have had to pay in the shops.  Our long winter nights with tea, scones and Dickens are now assured.

Published in: on September 20, 2009 at 9:39 am  Comments (9)  

Sunday Salon ~ A Different Type of Listening

70757~Cafe-Mocha-PostersI have spent the last forty-eight hours trying to get used to a new pair of glasses and so any form of extended reading has been very difficult.  Past experience has taught me that this will sort itself out in time, but at the moment it’s all very blurry and rather nauseating so I was more than usually interested in the discussion that I managed to plough my way through yesterday in Simon Palfrey’s Doing Shakespeare about Elizabethan audiences and the manner in which they listened.  (The ploughing, by the way, was down to the glasses and not the writing; the book is very good.)

Palfry makes the point that because of the very high levels of illiteracy (90% of women and 60+% of men) ‘[m]ost school learning was by rote, absorbed aurally.’  These people were read to, and it wasn’t just lessons that they experienced this way, but also ‘fables, stories, songs , ballads, news – and in a very real sense plays.’  They knew how to listen in a way that we have forgotten, nay in a way which we have never learnt.

For us sound is perpetual, we are surrounded by it constantly, to the point where complete silence, if we do ever experience it, is frightening.  But the corollary to this is that we have stopped listening.  I would consider myself to be far more aurally aware than many of my friends.  I watch almost no television and rarely go to the cinema.  Most of my non-reading entertainment and all of my news coverage is absorbed from the radio or via CD, but even so, I know that I do not actively listen to any more than about 20% of what I hear.  I am not an Elizabethan.  This weekend I have wished I was.  It takes practice to listen actively and I’m not good at it.

So, if it is permissible to make a new year resolution half way through September, here is mine.  In future when I put a programme on the radio that I want to hear I am going to stop doing whatever else I was multi-tasking and really listen to it.  I am also going to start downloading audio-books and listen to those.  There is a real issue here for me because my mother lost her sight and was unable to read during her latter years.  While the condition she had is not inherited, the shape of eyes that are likely to develop it is and so there may come a time when I have no option but to be an Elizabethan listener.  If that time should come then I don’t want to have to learn how to do it in my eighties.  Whether I will ever reach the listening heights that Palfry claims for Shakespeare’s contemporaries and be able as a matter of course to pick out the rhetorical figures of speech that dominate his works is another matter, but I’m going to have a really good try.

Published in: on September 13, 2009 at 8:57 am  Comments (16)  

Sunday Salon ~ On Tolkien and Shakespeare

70757~Cafe-Mocha-PostersThere has been a certain amount of chatter here over the past two weeks about Dr Samuel Johnson, prompted by my admission that despite the fact that he is very much a local writer I know almost nothing about him.  I’ve sat back in admiration letting other bloggers teach me about one of the great figures of English letters and I’m very grateful, but it’s not very good for ego, so yesterday I set off to remind myself that there is one local writer about whom I know much more.

As some of you know, I live in The Shire.  Now don’t get worried.  I’m not living a fantasy life.  I really don’t believe that I’m a woolly-footed Hobbit or a long-eared elf, although I have to admit that when I was at work there were days when I wouldn’t have minded being a grumpy axe-wielding dwarf.  No, I actually do live in The Shire, the landscape that Tolkien drew on when he was creating the Middle Earth homeland of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins.  I often go for tea at the mill that was the model for the one own by Ted Sandyman and yesterday, between first and second breakfast (I do have a healthy admiration for the Hobbit insistence on regular meals) I went for a long walk in The Old Forest.

Fortunately, we haven’t had that much rain over the past couple of week, because one good downpour and the paths can become impassable and as Frodo and his friends found out to their cost, taking a detour is not a good idea.


As you can see, I was able to do the sensible thing and follow one of the tributaries of the Brandywine so that I would be sure that I could find my way out again.

I was also able to stick to the lower path.  It’s always wise to avoid the upper one.  So much easier to hide if you happen to hear horses hooves coming up behind you.  They may say they’re just from the local trekking centre, but who knows what guises those evil Nazgul may have taken in this reincarnation.

Walking these paths alone, it is actually very easy to understand not only where Tolkien’s ideas came from, but also where he found some of the inspiration for the chilling atmosphere that he created.  It isn’t perhaps as easy to see how the University clock tower became one of the two towers of the trilogy’s second book, not that is, until you know that when it was built, a process Tolkien would have watched, it was constructed from the inside.  There was no scaffolding.  Watching that grow day by day, with no visible support, must have been very creepy indeed and it must have been easy to attribute it to some sort of magical intercession.

I cherish my links with The Shire and I also cherish my links with that other local writer, William Shakespeare.  As you will know if you come over here for tea on a regular basis, I’m going back to my Shakespeare studies and there’s been a suggestion made that we set up a Shakespeare discussion group.  I’ve put together a post about this, which is at present a sticky on the main blog site.  If you are interested in joining us then just click on the blog tab at the top of this post and you can read more about it there.  It would be great to have some fellow Salonistas along.

Published in: on August 23, 2009 at 8:51 am  Comments (11)