About Me

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I lead workshops at the British Library, on literature, language, art, history, and the culture of the book; and teach the history of printing at other institutions. I research language usage during the First World War, and lead the Languages and the First World War project. Author of Discovering Words, Discovering Words in the Kitchen, Evolving English Explored, Team Talk - sporting words & their origins, Trench Talk - the Language of the First World War (with Peter Doyle); How to Cure the Plague; The Finishing Touch; and Words and the First World War. As an artist I work in performance, public engagement, and intervention using drawing, curating, text, changing things and embroidery.


Sunday, 26 June 2016

Post-referendum thoughts

Reading Nick Cohen’s article in The Guardian[1] led me to look again at the images of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove in the aftermath of David Cameron’s resignation speech. They looked like they had been temporarily recalled from the naughty step. What had they expected? Quite possibly not to be in that position. Neck and neck was a good state to be in, and possibly a close defeat – it was not they who had been claiming that 48:52 would be so close that the referendum would be seen as unresolved. A close defeat by the establishment, especially with others shouting ‘Unfinished Business!’, would have given them an enviable position – tribunes of the people, the mouthpieces of a broad church embracing the protest voters alongside those who had actually thought about the EU and decided to vote Leave.

They now have various courses of action: stand as a new team, fight between themselves, or allow a ‘unification’ candidate to stand for the leadership of the Tory Party and the role of unelected Prime Minister. If the last course of action is chosen, this will be seen as running away and letting someone else clear up the chaos ensuing from the referendum, discrediting both themselves, the campaign and those who supported it. If they fight between themselves, this will indicate that the referendum campaign was little more than a platform for their own individual ambitions. So they have to stand; while part of the Tory party clearly sees Johnson as an electoral liability, others see how easily marketable he is; Gove is a bit more of a successor to Thatcher, his expert-ditching appeal to middle England likely to bring with it all those Daily Mail readers who will quickly forget the Daily Mail’s own reporting of the broken promises[2]. If elected, they will have to deal with a disturbed economy, reaction to their collapsing promises, the at least partial removal of the financial sector to the Eurozone, a rampant UKIP, the resurgence of Irish tension, the likely secession of Scotland, an EU unlikely to succour secessionism in other member-states by acceding to a desire for a relationship for the UK, and a host of other unforeseen results, including chaos for cross-Channel movement[3], and a change to the status of the English language[4].

Ian Duncan Smith can be disregarded. His apparent outrage at the pressure being heaped on the poor is blatant crocodile tears; my only direct contact with my MP has been when I asked for help in the saving of our allotments, and his response showed that he didn’t know which borough they were in. The ‘quiet man’ was obviously the Lepidus of this Tory triumvirate.

So what were Gove and Johnson hoping for? I suspect a close defeat. A close defeat would have meant the following:

·      Both would have had to be given a seat in Cabinet, and a massive power-base.
·      They would have walked into the top jobs following Cameron’s eventual resignation.
·      Cameron and Osborne would have been seen to have ‘won’ on 23 June, and would have had to deal with, and be seen to be responsible for the results of, the fallout – increased calls for a second Scottish referendum, civil tension in high migration areas.
·      UKIP could have been returned to the shadows until the next election, with a large part of its support base probably not voting or returning to the Tories.
·      Though Cameron’s gamble would have been seen to have paid off, it would have been seen as a cynical exercise in disenfranchising UKIP supporters, and discredited him as a politician.
·      Any civil strife would have been blamed on Cameron and Osborne as a result.
·      The supposed Labour heartlands who voted Leave would have felt even more disenfranchised until a General Election gave them a chance to put Johnson/Gove in power, probably with a landslide majority.

No wonder they looked as if they had lost a pound and found sixpence. They pretty much had.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

This not very sporting life

To mark the publication of The Roar of the Crowd, a sporting anthology, published by the British Library. 

You remember the victories; for me, one in particular. Being the best defender I was always picked against the best goalkeeper, Sandy Martin. I was on the winning side once, scoring twice – I rounded him and later I nutmegged him, though we didn’t call it that then. Somebody, a teacher I think, said ‘Well played’, which was not much considering that in reality I was now a giant among men, Theseus, Julius Caesar and the Lone Ranger rolled into one, avenging the three defeats a week that typified most of the winter term. As a result of this I was later appointed as team captain; also, having a good voice and an unaggressive nature, it was felt I might manage things so that the more timid boys might get a look in. But it wasn’t a team game – you dribbled and tackled, and occasionally the ball went in; passing came to us as naturally as sharing an Easter egg with our siblings.

Sport was a large part of my secondary education, introducing me to activities I had never heard of and would never participate in again – fives, fencing, triple-jump. Some of them I felt comfortable with (tennis, table-tennis, snooker, cricket), others I felt uncomfortable with (basketball, running, hockey), and some I viewed with undisguised despair (swimming, boxing, cross-country running); I thought triple-jump was plain daft. In the prevalent culture of skiving, most of the ‘sport’ involved finding ways of finishing a match quickly so you could go home early – knocking the ball into the nearest undergrowth, falling onto your wicket, or arguing with the ref and getting sent off. The teachers responded by changing the rules, which only challenged us to devise new ways of pretending to be mad, sick or unable to understand the limits of the field of play.

Despite all this, some sports interested me. Without excelling I came away with a medal for archery and developed a way of crouching in the run-up to a long jump that, at the cost of references to Groucho Marx, gave me extra lift and an extra few inches of undisturbed sand.

Since leaving school I have been involved in only two team-game matches that involved changing clothes, but have occasionally played tennis, ping-pong, billiards, and badminton. I have cycled as a pleasing way of getting from A to B, lifted weights and swum in an attempt to lose weight, but competitive sports had more or less gone from my life by the time I had children; with them I played beach-cricket and boules, but not to win.

Some time in the late 1980s I heard Joyce Carol Oates’ On Boxing read on BBC radio. I was held by it, startled, disturbed. Here was a sport I had totally dispensed with suddenly being given meaning, and its meaning was being teased out of it in ways that I had never considered: sport as tragedy, sport as will, sport as willingly being hurt, sport as self-destruction, sport as time, sport as a metaphor for life, life as a metaphor for sport even. Of all the sports that could be chosen to explore the meaning of sport, boxing was for me the most unlikely – boxing at school was painful, humiliating, the chosen sport of a bullying PE teacher. And yet Oates makes it disturbingly complex, a medium for exploring the self, the nature of destruction, pity, despair, love. She proposes that the only way to understand boxing is to consider it as not a sport: ‘there is nothing fundamentally playful about it, nothing that seems to belong to daylight, to pleasure. At its moments of greatest intensity it seems to contain so complete and powerful an image of life – life’s beauty, vulnerability, despair, incalculable and often self-destructive courage – that boxing is life, and hardly a mere game.’ The provocative use of the word ‘game’ highlights not just the seriousness of boxing, but the tension inherent within all sport: the ambiguity of ‘play’, the difference between games and sport, between taking part and winning, Anglo-Saxon pastime and Norman competition, the interdependence of loser and winner. Linguistically boxing embraces opposites; the ring is square; they fight but they do not fight; Pierce Egan, the great writer of nineteenth-century pugilism, called it ‘the sweet science of bruising’ and ‘the art of self-defence’.

And despite being so much about one against one, boxing is ultimately about the self. It may be the reduction of all physical competition (for running is essentially only about speed) and surely about ‘me being better than you’; but for Oates ‘my strengths are not fully my own, but my opponent’s weaknesses’. The boxer has to learn to ‘inhibit his own instinct for survival’; the only way to beat my opponent is by overcoming myself. Here even was something that I could relate to in my own puny experience of boxing.

So is boxing not theatre, not a ritual, not metaphor? Not with all the lights, the audience, the spectacle? Not quite, it is ‘a unique and highly condensed drama without words’, a story that needs mediation by words – ‘ringside announcers give to the wordless spectacle a narrative unity …’  Sport needs words to create its meaning, and boxing more than most – hence perhaps its fascination for so many writers. How sport needs words can be seen in so much sports journalism, articles often falling into two parts; you get the description of the match, but in order to make it matter, first you get the meaning of the match.

I return frequently to Oates’ text because it is not a simple thesis but a series of proposals, and worries; there is no escaping the fact that spectating at a boxing match involves an incitement to violence – ‘spectators at boxing matches relive the murderous infancy of the race’; we have ‘a sense not only that something very ugly is happening but that, by watching it, one is an accomplice’. But is this not the case whenever we watch competitive sport, because for every winner there must be many more losers? For every captain who lifts the cup there are banks of supporters weeping into their scarves and defiantly chanting their despair, not giving up, but almost broken by the pity of it. As Simon Barnes says in The Meaning of Sport ‘perhaps sport matters because it doesn’t matter’. And in this boxing perhaps is like any other sport, a perplexing jamming together of contrasts; as Oates says, despite the horror of complicity ‘we don’t give up on boxing, it isn’t that easy. Perhaps it is like tasting blood. Or, more discreetly put, love commingled with hate is more powerful than love. Or hate.’