Sunday, September 19, 2010

Catching up...

It has been a tradition, over the last half dozen years, to write introductions to my fanzines which presented various perfectly reasonable excuses for the lateness of publication and, indeed, I have a fair number of archived introductions that were superseded long before the final publication dates. I'd sort of expected not to do this on a blog because there's always time to write a couple of lines. Well yes. However, as a 2nd Dan Procrastinator, I can still find myself way behind with my exciting life, as demonstrated by my finally posting the last day of the Fringe report a good fortnight after the event. One of the reasons is pressure of work, the other is that I've been reading a book that seems to require some comment but I'm not clever enough to write anything cogent. The book I've been struggling with is 'Prosperity Without Growth' by Tim Leggett of the Sustainable Development Commission. I have vaguely wondered whether this book is one of the reasons that the Commission, against all good sense, is being disbanded. Certainly working within the business community I find that the idea that we should reconsider our desire for growth and replace it with some type of steady state economics is heresy that must never be uttered. I've finished reading the book and intend to re-read it and make notes. There may be some cogent comments in the future. Don't hold your breath.

In the meantime, life has been full of excitement! I finally met Catherine's new chap, Martin, who seems to justify Sally's contention that he's a really nice guy. Which is, of course, a Very Good Thing.

(I should just note that as I write this Ian has gone from playing jolly Cliff Richard teenpop of the fifties and sixties to Del Amitri's angstrock of the naughties. I Del Amitri.)

So work has moved into the heavy training timetable of Autumn. This is good in many ways. I like training very much as long as I know what I'm talking about. Unlike Ian I can't hold forth about subjects I'm totally ignorant of. Preparation is essential. But what I find I like is the pleasure of connecting with lovely people (not had a real grump for at least a year now) and the true joy of not having to write a report the day after. Last week I had a day in North Wales with a Welsh speaking civil engineering company (it's a long way from the middle of Anglesey by train), an extremely interesting day at the Building Research Establishment in Watford listening to how we should deal with refurbishing our decaying building stock, and a morning in Kettering. The week before was Bradford. Next week three days within easy travelling distance of Sheffield; Derby, Leeds and Bradford. I'm not bored.

(Dolly Parton now. 9 to 5 has given way to Stairway to Heaven...Um.)

More importantly, I've had a couple of fun weekends. Last weekend we saw the Moody Blues and Toy Story 3. Both of them gave a rather melancholy insight to the passage of time. Toy Story was rather more uplifting than the Moodies. This is what I scribbled immediately afterwards:

'Oh waily, waily, waily. We went to see the Moody Blues Sunday night and, as usual, it was pretty fab. Question was the first LP I bought and, though I’m not a musical afficianado, and have no real musical appreciation, I still like the Moodys lots. I had one of those evenings, though, when I felt strangely sad. One reason was because they stupidly projected photographs and videos from when whichever song they were playing was first produced. Also, some of the songs are terribly idealistic; eco-warriorish in many ways. It made me feel very old indeed and, unlike Graham Edge, I’m not 69. The average age of the audience was possibly not below 40 and we were all jolly comfortable. Possibly due to the padding we all carried with us.'

(Now we are listening to David Mitchell's Soap Box followed by Old Jews Telling Jokes.)

This weekend we went to see Barenaked Ladies and Scott Pilgrim versus the World. And we called in to see Margaret, Ian's ex-wife. All I can say, with jewish humour echoing in my ears, is that all these activities were hugely fun. Perhaps the best part of the gig was that Boothby Graffoe was the first support act. I'm particularly fond of Boothby and his animal friends and have missed seeing him at the Fringe. It was a joy to find him so unexpectedly accompanying, and accompanied by on the later songs, the Ladies. I bought one of his CDs. The BNLs were also jolly good but by that time the Manchester Apollo's seats were making me uncomfortable and my feet were twitchy. It is a tribute to their showmanship that I enjoyed them as much as I did. Fab!

I'm sort of thinking that our globetrotting friends will be back from Australia, getting over the jetlag and putting their photoalbums in order. I hope so. Is there anyone out there? 


The last of the Fringe - just for completeness

It feels like months since we came back from Edinburgh and I still haven’t written about the final day. So here we are.

We only had two shows on the last day and decided not to add any more so that I could have a quick meeting with my friend, June Strachan, and catch up on life & stuff.  Ian drove us into Edinburgh where we eventually found somewhere to park near the Stand and we headed for the Conan Doyle pub for a pint and a gossip. I’d never been in before and won’t be going in again. Ian and the kids started pilfering chairs from throughout the pub to give us enough seating around the one empty table whilst June and I went to the bar to order drinks. We’d got a pint of lager shandy for Ian, a pint of lager Jack and a glass of red wine for June before the barman started grumbling about needing proof of age from the kids. I gathered Jack’s student card which was deemed sufficient but Callum’s railcard, despite having his age and needing proof of age to purchase was not good enough. Sally didn’t have any identification at all. They only wanted soft drinks so I didn’t think it would be a problem but, no, apparently their young person cooties would affect the pub. I was very cross. Why was it so important to have documentation when our 18 year olds were accompanied by three obviously older responsible people? Why serve us at all without checking our compliance with their requirements? June handed her untouched glass back but we had to pay for the lager-based drinks, not least because Ian and Jack had necked them quite quickly. June and I stalked off to the Stand to get our drinks there with the kids. Ian and Jack followed shortly. Apparently the kids are allowed to exist there with their soft drinks.

Because of the faffing we were somewhat late in heading for the Stand. I find this a really uncomfortable venue but I wanted to see Stewart Lee so Ian and I scurried off with a bit of time to queue in the hopes of getting a seat with a back. There were about 3 left, scattered around the room so we sat apart. Five minutes before the start the kids were still not there. Already grumpy, I went and found them hovering outside, and heartlessly abandoned them to stand throughout the show. Unlike me, they bend, so they sat on the floor and I sat and huffed.

Luckily Stewart Lee was excellent. We have seen a lot of good comics this year but there was a certain amount of sameness about them. They were all talking about themselves and what they’d done. There’s nothing wrong with this. They were all worth seeing. And likeable. And safe. My only point in mentioning this is that Stewart Lee did not do that stuff. Stewart does something completely different. He tells stories. Recursive stories that draw you in, make you think, sharpens your perceptions. It’s not always comfortable. Not always likeable. Not all of it is funny although most is. What it is, is thought provoking and terribly interesting.  
My very favourite part was at the end when He reminisced about his contact with David Cameron, our new and deeply privileged Prime Minister. The story was deep and true and, as Andy Zaltzman catchphrases often, ‘OK, it’s not true but [his] point stands’.

Stewart Lee is performing in Grin Up North is Sheffield this October. He is booked into the Oval Hall, which is vast. I’d be interested to see whether it is possible to take this intimate little show into such a space.

The final act of the night and the fringe for us was Chris Addison. I saw him long ago (relatively) the last time he performed at the Fringe and he was good and talked about very interesting things but not this polished or relaxed (in a hyper sort of way). This was a return to comics talking about themselves but, unlike Susan Calman, John Bishop or Mickey Flanagan, he spoke directly to me about being middle class. It is, of course, an easy target but so much fun. We have, as he noted, mainly sorted out our prejudices. We might not secretly believe immigrants or women or gays are acceptable but we never say this and can usually keep a tight lid on this stuff, even internally. Give us a woman in Ugg boots, though, and we feel quite justified in smugly despising her. I find myself doing this to over-teched people (apart from Ian of course), quietly judging them; why do you have to have an iPhone when you obviously can’t afford decent clothes for your child, and so on, I will think poisonously. I laughed and laughed, ashamed but tremendously amused at the nastiness in my soul that he revealed in his perfectly likeable routine about himself. I guess that unlike John Bishop who invited me to wonder how I would react to success, and hope that I would cope so well, Chris invited me to look at his faults, see my own reflected and think about my behaviour. Only comedy can really do this so successfully. 

And so we finished wearily and headed back to Ian’s and then later back home. Callum hadn’t like Stewart Lee but seemed to have enjoyed everything else. The rest of us had really pretty much liked everything. Apart from Stewart there hadn’t been any edgy stuff this year. Perhaps a bit more next year.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

How your language affects your thinking

As a science fiction fan of many years standing I've been aware of the idea that your ability to deal with certain concepts is constrained by the language you speak. Apparently this is the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis which comes in a strong and weak version. The strong version posits that you cannot think things for which your language has no words.

One of my favourite books in my teenage years was Babel 17 by Samuel R Delany, based on the strong version of the hypothesis. This is a wonderful book in many ways whose central conceit was that your mind and intentions could be completely subverted by speaking and thinking in the constructed language, Babel 17, to the extent that you would betray your country and be unaware of it.

The Languages of Pao by Jack Vance has a similar central idea where societies are manipulated by the languages they are taught to speak. When I wiki'd Babel 17 the piece cited Native Tongue by Suzette Haden Elgin and The Dispossessed by Ursula K LeGuin along with The Languages of Pao as similar books. I don't quite agree with this.

Native Tongue and the follow up, The Judas Rose, are books written by a linguist with language as a central theme but although the women's language, Laadan, is transformational, it does not seem to make the ability to think about concepts impossible. Indeed, Suzette's language is designed to give words to things that are common experiences for women but which cannot be easily expresses in English and so necessitate endless words being used to try to approach the concept, in some ways the opposite of strong Sapir-Whorf as it is plain that the concepts can be approached but not with any grace or economy. I've just taken the book off the shelf to remind myself of some of the words given in the appendix. I particularly like to words beginning with 'ra', words about not doing or being something, and the words ending with lh which seem to imply intention for wrongness. Examples that I like:
ramime: to refrain from asking, out of courtesy or kindness
ramimelh: to refrain from asking, with evil intent; especially when it is clear that someone badly wants the other to ask
Another that I think very useful:
raheena: non-heart sibling, one so entirely incompatible with another that there is no hope of ever achieving any kind of understanding or anything more than a truce, and no hope of ever making such a one understand why ... does no mean enemy.  
This last gives a flavour of how I felt about my ex-husband, David. We could talk and talk and he would rarely understand what I was talking about.

So what got me started on this? I came across an article, via Ran Prieur's site, about language and how it affects thinking that is quite fascinating. It's called, 'Does Language Shape How You Think?' and it's well worth reading the whole piece. It gives a history of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis and gives some very interesting examples of the weak SWH, that colour perception is influenced by words, e.g. if your do not have separate words for blue and green you will see them as essentially shades of the same colour, and in languages where objects are allocated sexes, this will subtly affect how you perceive the object. Examples are given of words allocated opposite sexes in German and Spanish. The really intriguing example is the difference in perceptions in languages who view direction as person centred (front, right, behind, left) and those that are geographic (north, east, south, west). The implications of this to the way we use our minds are huge. 

I wonder how many similar language based differences may eventually be discovered. Because our thinking is enveloped in our language I imagine it is difficult to see outside it. We all sort of assume everyone else perceives things the way we do.    

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Belated second fringe day

OK, I should have written up on the day but I didn't and now I'm trying to remember what we did. Keeping it short we went to the GRV to see Oompah Brass which was pretty fabulous and extremely loud. One, tuba, one French horn, one trombone and two trumpets (or cornets or something small and brass an loud). It was funny and the music was just amazing and I was glad we were sat at the back. The lederhosen was also jolly fine. But then from the back I couldn't see the knees. The A to Z spelled out, eventually, CDs only ten pounds. I didn't buy one guessing that my Macbook would be able to provide the same experience. I'd happily see them again though.

The next show was Axis of Awesome at the Teviot. We saw them last year on Lilian's recommendation and really liked them. This time we thought we'd give the kids a treat. Jack pointed out that this was the third music based show in two days but seemed happy enough at the end. You don't have to have any musical ability to appreciate the AofA. I sort of wonder why these Aussie musical comedy acts are so very good. Who could forget Eddie Perfect (yummy) or the Scared Weird Little Guys? We check for the SWLGs every year but they never come back. Sigh. AofA are not a replacement but splendid in their own way. Their four chord song has gone viral, as well it should. It's a fairly common idea, the hit songs are very simple and the music is interchangeable. I saw Pete Atkin do something very similar. AofA do it very well.

The final show was John Bishop with his show, Sunshine at the McEwan Hall. This was a very large venue and was sold out, unsurprisingly. Last time we saw him was last year in the Cocktail Bar at the Pleasance. It was the last Sunday, he'd just missed getting whatever the award was called last year and was just a little bit the worse for drink. Never mind, he was wonderful in that little venue and pretty damn good in this huge one. Ian and I were on the front row this time; the kids were too sensible to put themselves in such a vulnerable position but it wasn't a problem. John seems to be a very nice man, not prone to making people miserable. He asked who had seen him on TV. Everyone! Who had seen him at the Fringe before? About 20 people and our party was five of those.
Whether it translates into real life or not, John has a warm and friendly stage persona and you can't help but like him. He has suddenly become an overnight success after only six years of struggling and he deals with it with all the grace and comedy you would expect of a first rate comedian, how you would hope to behave if you suddenly met all the celebrities you had idolised over the years. He has a lovely turn of phrase and you completely buy in to his stories. We were sold the first time we saw him and he referred to a drive back from holiday where some hour in he realised his wife had been 'leaking sound' for the entire journey without it impinging on his consciousness at all. If you get the chance, go see John Bishop.