Category: Books and Writing

Quote of the Day: On the flexibility of the English language

You might not think it, but even things associated with the seemingly monolithic structure that is academia are subject to change. For example, I’ve recently been writing an essay on the twentieth century transformation of the nature of historical sources and the ways in which they can be used; a series of changes which have had a profound impact on the subject and are still ongoing.

And it’s not just the language we use to describe such cultural concepts that is transforming. The language we use on a day-to-day basis is changing and mutating too. While reading an article on the necessity (or otherwise) of some traditional grammar rules on The Independent’s website, I came across this quote from the journalist and author Oliver Kamm:

The English language is not static, nor are its boundaries clear. Nor is it a language tied to the British Isles. English is a river. Its content is always changing and it has many tributaries. Its characteristics include impermanence. Indeed, there can be no single definition of the English language.

Historians frequently go on about their beloved concepts of continuity and change – indeed, the one, ever continuing, fundamentally important aspect of British culture, landscape and language that tends to be overlooked or even sometimes sneered at is its non-static nature. Kamm’s words bring this innate movement and flexibility into sharp relief, reflecting the ever-changing nature of the English language.

Every generation brings new words, new phrases, new ways of using the language to the table, and this has been going on for centuries – just look, for instance, at the enormous impact of William Shakespeare’s creative vocabulary, or the beautifully influential language used by the original editors of the King James Bible. These innovations may take some time to work their way into common usage, but English is a compulsively, inherently magpie language that pinches things from a huge variety of cultures and dialects worldwide; absorbing them into a new and textured whole.

Christmas on Film: ‘Scrooge, or Marley’s Ghost’ (1901)

One of the earliest surviving adaptations of Charles Dickens’ work on film (and certainly the earliest surviving film version of A Christmas Carol), this is a remarkably ambitious piece of film-making for the time – for a start, it attempts to cram an eighty page story into a mere five minutes, which, for anyone who knows the source text well, seems quite an achievement!

Sadly, the only known remaining print is incomplete, but enough of it is left to demonstrate magician and director W.R Booth’s (1869-1938) creative approach to special effects (watch out for the scene where Scrooge’s doorknocker turns into Jacob Marley’s head, and the initial appearance of Marley’s ghost himself), some of which even now are pretty impressive.

Continue reading

Recommended Reading: Books on Music – Your Choices

Well. I wasn’t expecting this when I asked you to suggest any books on music I might have missed! When I compiled my original list, I thought I might get maybe half a dozen folk recommending their favourite music texts, if I were lucky – instead, I was sent suggestions by nearly forty different people. Indeed, at one stage last night, the tweets were coming in so fast that I couldn’t keep up with them all and make a note of all the book titles you were sending my way at the same time! My apologies if I didn’t reply then – but I did see and note down all of them, and all of them are here (apart from one or two that I couldn’t find any info for).

And there are some great books here. Some I had actually read and shamefully forgotten about (Joe Boyd’s White Bicycles and Legs McNeil’s Please Kill Me for a start), some classics which I really should have read but haven’t (such as Ian Hunter’s Diary of A Rock ‘n’ Roll Star), and some I’ve never heard of but will definitely be tracking down as soon as I can (like Mark E. Smith’s autobiography, which sounds terrifying!). But they’ve all been recommended by people whose taste and opinions I respect – and therefore I happily recommend them to everyone else…

Finally, I’d like to thank everyone whose contributions made this list possible. I’d thank all 37 of you individually, but we’d be here all night and this post would be even longer than it already is. You know who you are.

This list has, like the original, been divided into three sections for ease of perusal. Biography, Autobiography and Memoirs contains exactly that – books written by or about a band, artist or music industry insider. Scenes, Eras and Places lists volumes covering specific times, locations and musical movements that have had an important impact in some way. Finally, Collected Writings covers more general texts, and compilations of music journalism and other writings. Each section is listed in alphabetical order by the author’s surname and the date given is that of first publication where known, unless otherwise stated.

Continue reading

Recommended Reading: Books on Music

I’m often asked what books I would recommend to someone wanting to delve deeper into the history of the various popular music scenes of the past fifty years or so. That’s an interesting question, as there are so many fascinating volumes out there (and a fair few blatant cash-ins too, which really aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on). Rummaging through my own now-sizeable collection of music books inspired me to put together this list  – that and being a total listoholic, as regular readers will know!

When it comes down to it, I’m not necessarily saying these are the ‘best’ books on music ever because that’s such a subjective definition – I’ve chosen these books because I have read and enjoyed them all, and because I think they would be of interest to those music fans wanting to learn more about the music they know and the music they don’t. Most of them will be easy enough to find – your local library or bookshop should stock many of these titles – but you may have to track down one or two online. They’re worth the effort though…

The list has been divided into three sections for ease of perusal. Biography, Autobiography and Memoirs contains exactly that – books written by or about a band, artist or music industry insider. Scenes, Eras and Places lists volumes covering specific times, locations and musical movements that have had an important impact in some way. Finally, Collected Writings covers more general texts, and compilations of music journalism and other writings. Each section is listed in alphabetical order by the author’s surname and the date given is that of first publication, where known.

Continue reading

National Poetry Day 2014

Today is National Poetry Day, so (just like last year) I decided to share a poem with you. As this year’s theme is Remember, I’ve gone for one of the first poems I learned by heart as a child – and still remember with pleasure…

Cargoes

Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.

Stately Spanish galleon coming from the Isthmus,
Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores,
With a cargo of diamonds,
Emeralds, amythysts,
Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.

Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack,
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Road-rails, pig-lead,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.

John Masefield

John Masefield (1878-1967) was Poet Laureate for thirty seven years between 1930 and 1967, and is also well-known for his classic childrens’ books The Midnight Folk and The Box of Delights – amongst a huge amount of other writings over his long life, both prose and poetry.

I was introduced to ‘Cargoes’ as a precocious poetry-reading child by my late mother and immediately fell in love with the tongue-twisting phrases and vivid, intriguing imagery. This is a poem to be learned, read aloud and remembered…

Thank you Toppermost!

After last month’s excellent series of guest posts on Another Kind Of Mind, it was suddenly my turn to be writing something for someone else – indeed, the nice chaps over at the very excellent Toppermost interactive music website kindly asked me to put together a playlist and an article on the solo albums of Bob Mould (ex-Hüsker Dü and Sugar), one of my favourite musicians.

So, naturally, I jumped at the chance – and you can read the finished article at Toppermost here.

And as a taster, here’s one of my favourite tracks from the Bob Mould Toppermost playlist. Turn it up loud and enjoy!

Weird Words of the Day: Part Two

Back in May of last year, I posted on the subject of strange words for unusual concepts. That provoked a lot of interesting responses from you all, so I (perhaps a little belatedly!) decided it was time to dig out a few more weird and wonderful words to define for you. Some of these lexicographical oddities may be more familiar than others, but they all refer to strangely familiar ideas and experiences you might be surprised to know there is even a word for!

Grawlix:

Well, I’ll be @*&%ed, so that’s what a grawlix is! And indeed, that sentence contains an excellent example of exactly what a grawlix is – the use of a string of random punctuation marks to indicate swearing, more usually seen in comic book speech bubbles. Created as what was, quite frankly, a bit of a private joke by the American cartoonist Mort Walker in the 1960s, the use of the word grawlix to indicate such a concept has come to take on a validity and a life of its own. By the early 1980s, Walker had written The Lexicon of Comicana, which defined both grawlix and a number of other rather excellent words for common comic book concepts including squeans (the squiggles round a character’s head indicating drunkenness or dizziness), solrads (lines indicating the brightness of the sun or a light) and briffits (the cloud of dust left behind when a character dashes away at speed). Walker’s book is still in print and has become a key text for anyone studying the art of the cartoonist.

Continue reading

World War One: Isaac Rosenberg – Poet and Painter

Isaac RosenbergAsk anyone who has even a passing acquaintance with 20th century literature about the poets and poetry of the First World War, and I can guarantee that the names ‘Rupert Brooke’, ‘Wilfred Owen’ and ‘Siegfried Sassoon’ will be mentioned at some point. All three are rightly-reknowned poets (especially Owen), but they weren’t the only ones to be creatively inspired by their war experiences. In today’s World War One post, I’ll be looking at the life and death of another Great War poet – one who came from a very different background, and whose work is still perhaps not as well-known as it should be.

Born in Bristol on 25th November 1890, Isaac Rosenberg was the eldest son of a family of Jewish immigrants who had originally come over from Eastern Europe. When young Isaac was seven years old, his family moved to the East End of London in search of work. Settling on Cable Street, in the heart of the area’s large working-class Jewish community, the Rosenbergs found it difficult to make ends meet and Isaac, although intelligent and artistically talented, was forced to leave school at 14 in order to earn some money for the family.

He was apprenticed to an engraver, a job he apparently hated, but he was already beginning to write poetry and also started attending evening classes in art at Birkbeck College. He lost his job in 1911, but a lucky chance meeting led to his artistic talent being recognised by a patron, who agreed to fund his studies at the prestigious Slade School of Art. At the Slade, he studied alongside a number of young artists who went on to be very successful (and who also later reflected the impact of the war in their work), including Stanley Spencer and Mark Gertler.

Moving in the well-connected circles associated with this creatively charged atmosphere obviously had an impact on Isaac, as he was able to get a small book of his poetry privately published in 1912. A year later, he met Edward Marsh, the editor of the influential Georgian Poetry volumes and one of the most important people on the British poetry scene at the time. This meeting seems to have been very positive as the two men corresponded right up until Rosenberg’s death.

Continue reading

Quotes of the Day: Maya Angelou on being yourself – and respecting yourself

Here are a few words of wisdom from the pen of a very wise woman:

If you are always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be.

Never make someone a priority when all you are to them is an option.

My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

The writer of these words, Maya Angelou, who has died at the age of 86, was most certainly an amazing person (and, incidentally, she was quite right about “trying to be normal” – there’s no such thing…). Best known as a writer, academic, award-winning poet* and civil rights activist who worked with both Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X, she was, at various times and amongst other things, also a successful actress, singer and dancer. Described by her family as “a warrior for equality, tolerance and peace”, Maya Angelou was certainly a woman who lived her life with passion, compassion, humour and not a little style. She will be missed.

* Two of my personal favourites from among her many poems can be found here and here.

UPDATE: The 2014 Diagram Prize

At the end of last month, I wrote my annual post about the Diagram Prize – which is probably the oddest, and certainly my favourite, literary prize of the year. The winner of the 2014 Prize was announced yesterday after a public vote, with top spot going to the very weirdly-titled (and possibly a little pointless?) How To Poo On A Date: The Lovers’ Guide To Toilet Etiquette by Mats & Enzo.

In a statement, the publishers of How To Poo On A Date drily commented:

We are very happy and honoured that the public thought our book worthy of first place in this much sought-after prize; we’d have been disappointed to be number two.

Oh dear