words


 

It’s the Pink Panther, the rinky-dink Panther,

 and it’s as plain as your nose,

that he’s the one and only truly original

Panther Pink from head to toes.

 

I can give you those lyrics so easily, straight from memory: the words aren’t even buried treasure, so close are they to the surface. Oh yes, I’ve got those Rinkydink-Batfink-Top-Cat-Tip-Top-Hit-Me-With-Your-Rhythm-Stick blues. Some days, it happens: an old beating-on-a-trashcan sound gets up some speed. ‘Starts again always in Henry’s ears/the little cough somewhere, an odour, a chime.’ Yes. It’s something to do with that compulsion John Berryman describes in Dream Song 29. Somewhere, in a mysterious corner of the cerebellum, two or more sounds connect like a little circuit and you are thrown backwards into a cartoon moment, a movie, a catchy number-one from Top of the Pops: cartoons such as The Pink Panther, Top Cat, or Batfink; that Ian Dury tune that your parents recorded onto the very first tape you had and played to death, the one containing an unholy amalgam of The Beatles, ‘Chanson D’Amour,’ Showaddywaddy and Boney M. But plenty of people reach for this kind of nostalgia. TV is full of this po-mo recent-past binge-thinking, and full of people moaning about how boring it is to focus on all this easily available Pot-Noodle memory. I quite agree.

The Pink Panther is hardly Rilke’s Panther in the Jardin des Plantes. Top Cat’s adventures don’t travel the same magical distance as Fred Astaire’s footsteps in Top Hat. Top Cat and The Pink Panther please like sweeties please, like lemon sherbets: a sweet quick fizz. Who can remember their plotlines? How did Hugo A Go Go try to trap Batfink and Karate in ‘The Short-Circuit Case’ ? Why didn’t Top Cat and Officer Dibbles try to make a go of it? We don’t much care. The reason these little toons had bite wasn’t their story, it was their sound.

Soundbites, as politicians know, work because their sounds bite. A little phrase locks its jaws into a lobe of the brain and a permanent link is forged. So, although the plot of Batfink is lost, the sounds of the names are not. Pun-punchdrunk genius went into those Batfink character names: Hugo A Go Go, Judy Jitsu, Goldyunlocks, Brother Goose. An assonating, alliterating badass thought of catchphrases like ‘My wings are like a shield of steel’ and ‘my supersonic sonar radar will save me.’  Never mind the story; have the pleasure of tasting tongue-twisters like that week on week and the kids will be hooked. But why?

It’s a deep-brainer. We learn language by making neural connections, and as researchers such as Hulme and Snowling have found, if ‘children lack “phonological awareness” […] they are destined to find learning to read and write difficult.’ (1) In other words, if they cannot hear rhymes and alliteration, and therefore cannot link or group the sounds of speech, they are likely to be poor readers and writers: reading and writing build upon ‘the child’s intuitive knowledge of the structure of speech.’ (2) This phonological awareness develops before we begin to read and write, so if such connections are not made, literacy is impaired. And if literacy is impaired, memory is impaired: memories are words that name images, smells, tastes, sounds and textures. From my experience as a teacher, a child with poor literacy has no memory. She cannot say what she remembers, because words strung into syntax are what call up the world, and her grasp of syntax is like a torn fishing net. She will not be able to describe her first memory. She will not be able to tell you about her house, her family, her dreams. She has no dreams–because she has no words.

Now I know how memory is stifled at birth (it happens when a child isn’t spoken to and listened to,  from the beginning) I know how precious the tongue-twisters are. Penelope Pitstop, Dastardly and Mutley and Hong Kong Phooey are little giggles, chimes that set off bigger, greater poems later. But they only delight me today because of early conversations I had with my parents, at a time when I couldn’t yet reply but nonetheless heard the pretty chime of things that set the darkness echoing.

1) from David Wood, How Children Think and Learn, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999),  215

2) Wood, 215.

 

Batfink usually has some alliterative delights, puns and rhymes, and this is no exception: Hugo A Go Go is the ‘copycat bat’ and poor Karate, thrown off a cliff, moves the voiceover narrator to comment: ‘It looks like Karate’s courageous career is kaputt.’ Karate also dusts down City Hall for the copycat bat’s ‘wingerprints.’ Bliss, even if the 4 minutes of cartoon does feel rather laboured.

‘For there is nowhere to bide,’ Rilke tells us in the first Duino Elegy. We live, however, as if we have a home, a stopping place, when we are just the movement of a heartbeat through the clockwork hours. And the heart beats counter to the clock. Heartbeat is wrong: life swims in us, rather than beating. The clock is the one who strikes. Dasein, being, is drowned out by the noisy seconds, their inexorable subtractions. Even our English verbs have forgotten this, subject as they are to the slap of minutes and the fist of days.

In England, we talk about where we’ live,’  and there hardly seems to be another verb used for it. In Scotland, friends ask you ‘where do you stay?’  and at least then living somewhere seems to keep faith with the lack of permanence that is its true condition. But in England, the question ‘where do you live?’ has come to mean something about postcodes, mortgages, even GPS coordinates that you can punch into a Satnav. It hardly has the drift of what it really means, less still the urgency with which Rilke, say, might ask the question: ‘where do you live?’

That question is one Rilke asks me now; Rilke, long dead, and yet breathing for me as forcefully as his ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo.’  ‘Where do you live?’ he asks, throwing his whole voice into the verb. It is not a question I can answer, but one that a line from Hopkins tries to answer for me: ‘deals out that being indoors each one dwells.’ Oh Hopkins. He just assumes that selving happens as a matter of course. ‘Each mortal thing,’ he writes, ‘selves, goes itself,’ as if those mortal things deal out their being as easily as they exhale. Not so, unfortunately.

Where we live and where we dwell is locked within us, an underground river, looking for its resurgence. Our task is therefore not to find a place to lay our heads but to descend to the slipstream and abide there. If you have ever tried to stand upright in a burn in spate you will know how difficult this task is: once in a torrent or meltwater, the ‘you’ is seen for the flotsam that it is. Try to stay standing in it and only your will remains, only your pure attention.

‘To ‘bide’ or to ‘abide’ is hardly possible; biding is fragile defense against the force of life. A parable: years ago, on the Shetland Island of Whalsay, I stayed with J in a cottage once rented by the poet Hugh MacDiarmid, who used the place as an office in which to write ‘A Raised Beach.’ The owners were a generous and sociable couple who had a thirteen-year-old daughter. One evening, we sat down to our meal, the door open to the warm July dusk. We ate and talked and did not notice that a third presence had approached. A girl (we assumed it was the daughter) was standing on the threshold, watching us eat. We did not know how long she had been there; perhaps thirty seconds, perhaps ten minutes: her gaze was so soft that it took light years to reach us. Realising who she must be, we tried to talk to her, asking her about her life on this tiny island, and about the other islands. Which was her favourite? ‘Bressay…where my aunt bides.’ Bides. In the dusk, that word swung back and forth before me like a candle lantern, and has swung ever since. Who was she, this girl who talked of biding? We could not persuade her to come into the house and we could not suggest that she leave. When I passed near her, she shrank against the wall, even though I was not less than five feet from her. To my shame, I felt afraid of her. She lived on Whalsay, but where did she bide? We had guessed who she was, but at no time did she offer us her name. Looking at us with curiosity, she managed not to stare, as if someone had charcoal-sketched the expression into her eyes. She was an ember made grey ash, slaked by the sea.

Visited by this creature, I was gifted the verb ‘bide’ and its lovely sister ‘abide.’ Full of longing, calling out ‘stay with me, though you cannot stay,’ ‘bide’ and ‘abide’ tell us of reaching out for stillness when the night comes, of desire breathing out and aching for rest.

‘And if you’re northern, that makes it even worse.’ (Morrissey)

for George Deane

In ‘Let’s Ballad: Richard Hawley, Voicemanguitar’ I talked about Hawley being ‘northern.’ On the Hawley forum later, there was some dispute about whether Sheffield (Hawley’s home town) is really ‘north’ at all. But to me, Sheffield is north. Sheffield has a good deal of affinity with the northern town in which I was born, Bolton. In both cases, being northern is about neglected beauty, postindustrial decay, political radicalism, battered dignity. I’ve lived in the Cotswolds for five years now, and love its landscape (it’s not the chocolate box it at first appears to be). But I crave, will always crave, the Victorian red brick, the blackened sandstone of the north. It hurts me to go there: Bolton looks more impoverished with each visit, eviscerated as it is by the blight of supermarkets and what my Dad calls the ‘sheds,’ the vast hangars full of consumer tat to be found on the Bolton Wanderers carpark that is the ‘Middlebrook’ out-of-town shopping centre. My north fights against this north. My stone and brick north is also a dream place, a place of whinberry-filled moorland. Whinberries could stand as emblems of the north: tiny berries that cling to the earth, that bruise your teeth and tongue with their purple; sour-sweet bubbles containing larksong, reedy streams, peatbeds. Whinberry–a taste I haven’t had for so long but which stays on my palate. Those berries: so many unhealed, stubborn bruises the hill wears like a blazon.  

Call a singer a ‘crooner’ these days and you don’t exactly appear to be giving them a compliment. ‘Crooner’ seems somehow to be the opposite of ‘rock’n’roll.’ Crooners are smooth, unruffled creatures of some bygone era: think of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jnr, Bing Crosby. You can’t easily mosh to ‘Volare,’ ‘White Christmas’ or ‘Isle of Capri.’ If punk is all pogo and piledriving, crooning is a fondle well-nigh horizontal. At odds with the times, it’s not designed for mp3 listening (you have to really listen to and feel the quiet bits–turning up the volume in your headphones as you pass the mechanical digger and the ambulance with its siren on won’t aid your appreciation of the music) and it don’t look good on the modern dancefloor. Why then, does crooning have such a bad press? Is it really a synonym for sentimental slop? Perhaps, if your name is  ‘Tony the Rat-Pack style Wedding Singer.’ But take a look at the etymology and there’s the beating heart of the word: ‘to sing in a subdued tone and reflective or sentimental style.’ Crooning, in other words, is singing that thinks, acts as a pure mirror, reflects back emotion. More than that, the word’s origin is ‘probably from Dutch cronen to lament,’ (Chambers Dictionary). And so we return again to duende, saudade; the great sadness that reaches up through modern masters like Richard Hawley and Nick Cave. A synonym for ‘croon’? Perhaps ‘ache,’ perhaps ‘grownup lullaby.’

There are dead words everywhere, and there are words that are dying. It’s an annual thing, a monthly thing, a daily thing. Dialect words, slang words, jargon words bubble into life and wither.  Whole languages, evolved by tribes whose lands are being burned, bought and looted, are being eroded right now, sacrificed to greedy uber-tongues like English. A melancholy fact, certainly. And one which makes me want to turn my own endangered favourites to the light, rescuing a few of the badmouthed words, the unfashionable ones, the impossibly delicate ones. I’d like to create my own little ark of these words, over time, creating something that isn’t quite a dictionary, but which nods fondly to the great Dr Johnson (now there’s a man who knows how to make a dictionary definition into a prose poem: look, for example, at how he defines the word ‘icicle’). I’d like to daisy-chain together my chosen words, writing a 100 word essay on each (I still haven’t written enough of my bonsai essays). My methodology will be simple ( check the etymology, check my lodestar Johnson) and my principles decisively erratic. I’m aiming for a bit of drift and digression; indirections finding directions out and all that. I want to get all eighteenth-century about these words. You can’t go wrong with a bit of eighteenth century in the gigabyte age. I’ll start with the word ‘crooner’.  But I intend to meditate on the subject until at least tomorrow. Until then…