Tuesday 21 June 2011

The Need of the Idle

Our parents sewed out of economic necessity, to 'make do and mend'. but today handmade goods have become outrageously expensive, as needlework and other crafts that were traditionally practised by housebound housewives have been transferred to a few artisans who know how to market their wares to wealthy middle class consumers increasingly sceptical of mass production. At what point did handmade items become so much more costly than things bought in shops? Discussion of this topic is best left to sociologists and economists. I want to talk about 'needle threaders'.

Every sewing kit includes a needle threader – a tiny tin plate with a diamond-shaped wire loop attached. You poke the loop of wire through the eye of the needle, thread the cotton through the loop, then drag the cotton back through the eye. Almost invariably, the needle threader is embossed with the image of a face in profile – usually a woman in a helmet (though occasionally a man wearing a laurel wreath). No matter what make of sewing kit, the same face is there. The designs are not identical, but they're similar. Here are two needle threaders that I have. Note the subtle differences. Click on them to see them up close.

Wikipedia says that the design of the needle threader is Victorian and that the face is that of Queen Victoria herself. Other online sources repeat this claim unquestioningly, though it is obviously false. It doesn't look like Victoria. It looks like Minerva, or perhaps Marianne, the emblem of France.

Who is she and what does she symbolise? Was she once the trademark of a single sewing company, so successful that it has been copied universally? Are all needle threaders manufactured in one place – in China? – according to a limited range of tin stamps, before being shipped in their millions, or billions, to sewing companies across the globe? I want to know the answer to this riddle, as it seems important. One day the face will disappear entirely.

As the years pass, the face of the needle threader loses its identity. We may never know who it is or whose trademark it originally represented. It is an orphaned signifier, yet it persists, like the memory of an embroidery dream. It is the face of mass-production, of uniformity, and although it is minuscule, cheap, fragile and faded, its eye has been seen in every country in the world, and it is an imperial gaze that stares back ruefully at those who squint over their domestic needlework.

Thursday 9 June 2011

Curt Hatred's Pâte à Physique

Last night I directed Luke, Ryan, Georgina and Chrus in The Curt Hatred 'Pataphysical Intervention, an experimental improvised show at The Miller pub, near London Bridge. 'Pataphysics was described by Alfred Jarry as 'as far from metaphysics as metaphysics extends from regular reality'. It has also been called 'the science of exceptions', and 'the science of imaginary solutions'. Naturally, any generalizing non-'pataphysical definition of the term is likely to be misleading.

In honour of Curt Hatred, Dani made for him a 'Pâte à Physique': a 'physical pastry', emblazoned with his initals and stuffed with Blue Pig pork. It's a thing of beauty, don't you agree?

Tuesday 7 June 2011

Language Learning, Narrative and Flirting

A good shortform impro game would involve one actor attempting to negotiate a horrendously complex situation armed only with gibberish and whatever phrases could be gleaned from a slender tourist's phrasebook.

Eugene Ionesco's early play La cantatrice chauve (The Bald Prima Donna) was inspired by his experiences learning English according to the Assimil method, using a book called L'Anglais sans Peine. In the early stages of the language course, an English couple is introduced – the Smiths – who talk to each other in stilted phrases, pointing out facts that should have been blindingly obvious to both of them. Ionesco described the process in an article he wrote in 1958:
To my astonishment, Mrs Smith informed her husband that they had several children, that they lived in the vicinity of London, that their name was Smith, that Mr Smith was a clerk, that they had a servant, Mary – English, like themselves. . . . I should like to point out the irrefutable, perfectly axiomatic character of Mrs Smith's assertions, as well as the entirely Cartesian manner of the author of my English primer; for what was truly remarkable about it was its eminently methodical procedure in its quest for truth. In the fifth lesson, the Smiths' friends the Martins arrive; the four of them begin to chat and, starting from basic axioms, they build more complex truths: 'The country is quieter than the big city . . .'

La cantatrice chauve, an 'anti-play' in which the Smiths and the Martins appear, begins as a satire on language as it is taught, then expands logically to be a satire on the whole of language. The rules, conventions and narratives that are inherent in language lead inexorably to its own decomposition into an incoherent babble. This is what makes the play a tragedy.

I once had the idea of taking the idea in a different direction by assembling some sketches that consisted solely of the expressions found in a opening pages of a Greek phrasebook, spoken unedited, verbatim and in order. The only additions I would make would be a series of stage directions, which would lend nuance, purpose and drama to an otherwise dreary list of expressions to use when, for example, ordering a taxi. It would resemble a ballet more than a play, a series of impressionistic vignettes in which the unspoken emotion would eventually triumph over the formalities of polite discourse. The dialogue would begin:

A: 'Welcome'
B: 'Hello'
A: 'How are you?'
B: 'I'm fine thanks. And you?'
A: 'Long time no see.'
B: 'What's your name?'
A: 'Where are you from?'

Leading at some point to:

B: 'How much is this?'
A: 'Sorry.'
B: 'Thank you.'
A: 'Where's the toilet?'
B: 'This gentleman/lady will pay for everything.'
A: 'Would you like to dance with me?'
B: 'I love you.'
A: 'Get well soon.'
B: 'Leave me alone!'
A: 'Help!'

Language textbooks and phrasebooks are a good source for narratives, as they follow a good story-telling principle of starting as simply as possible, describing an environment first, and building solely on what has already been established. The Cambridge Latin Course exemplified this principle. In Book I, Stage One we learn only that Caecilius is in the tablinum, while his wife Metella is in the hortus. Apart from some comic business from the cook Grumio and the dog Cerberus (which attacks people at random), plus a couple of dreary dinner parties, very little happens until Vesuvius erupts in Stage 12. Yet by the end of Book V, enough vocabulary, grammar and syntax has been generated to describe an entire empire, and to sustain an involved plot about the unscrupulous senator Gaius Salvius Liberalis being put on trial accused of the forgery of the will of King Cogidubnus.

The learning of a language is not just similar to the exploration of a world or the narration of a story, it is exactly the same thing. The implicit conventions that emerge from the from the classification of utterances are the exactly same ones that govern the rules of the universe in which those utterances are made. So your choice of teaching material is all-important. If, for example, the actors in my impro game were to use the Korean language iPhone app from Lingopal, instead of your average Berlitz phrasebook, the scene and the characters would inevitably develop along very different lines.

I recommend this app, whether or not you ever find yourself in a situation where you have to express yourself in Korean. For ease of use, the phrases are grouped under 25 different headings for different situations. Here is the full list:

  1. Essentials
  2. Numbers
  3. Days & Time
  4. Travelling
  5. Where is ...?
  6. Dining
  7. Accommodation
  8. Directions
  9. Shopping
  10. Email & Banks
  11. Making Conversation
  12. Business Talk
  13. Emergencies
  14. Flirting
  15. Flirting – 1st Move
  16. Flirting – Conversation
  17. Flirting – Compliments
  18. Flirting – At the Beach
  19. Flirting – For Girls
  20. Flirting – For Boys
  21. Flirting – Getting Lucky
  22. Flirting – Rejection
  23. Gay
  24. Insults – Mild
  25. Insults – X-Rated

The insults Lingopal recommends are remarkably creative, such as 'Suck my dick and wash my car' (내 좆이나 빨고 내 차나 씻어라) and 'Eat the peanuts out of my shit' (내 똥에서 똥공이나 골라먹어). But flirting expressions alone comprise nearly a third of the phrasebook. Perhaps this genuinely reflects the priorities of the modern young traveller. I can only assume that there is indeed some evidence that it is possible to seduce someone by reading lines directly from your iPhone in an uncomprehending syllable-by-syllable phonetic drone. Even if it isn't, the suggested phrases are eye-opening and instructive. They range from the cheesily tame – 'You are very pretty' (당신은 매우 예뻐요) and 'Can you recommend a restaurant I can take you to?' (당신을 모시고 갈 레스토랑을 추천해 주시겠어요?) – via the adventurous – 'It's unusual, but since I met you, my trousers feel tighter' (이런적 없지만 당신을 만난 후로 제 바지가 꽉끼네요) – through to lines that are so irresistibly surreal that I can well imagine Ionesco himself finding success with them: 'I have forgotten to do my homework, Mr Submarine Commander!' (숙제 하는걸 잊었어요 잠수함장님!)

Wednesday 1 June 2011

The London Circle Walk

A few years ago (quite a number of years ago, in fact), I was sitting in The Lock Tavern in Camden with Tim Wilson. This pub used to employ the ruse of playing painfully loud polka music at chucking out time in order to get everyone to leave. I don't know if they still do, as I haven't been back there in ages.

We were several pints into the conversation and for reasons unknown we were discussing the work of the 'land artist' Richard Long. It was he who took art into pioneering conceptual realms by calling a walk 'art', and he is particularly noted for the circles and straight lines that he would trace over stretches of countryside, both in this country and across the plains of Canada, Mongolia and Bolivia.

We argued pointlessly about how hard it would be to walk in big circles in different parts of the world, given geography and rights-of-way and that sort of thing. Much easier to walk nice geometrical shapes on the flats of Mongolia, of course. But what would happen, we asked ourselves, if we were to apply a pair of compasses to a map of London? How much zigzagging would you be forced to do in order to walk as closely as possible to an imaginary circle on the ground? What would we find along the way?

Thus, the London Circle Walk was born.

The London Circle Walk (click to see full size)

The circle's position and dimensions are partly pre-determined and partly arbitrary. There can only be one viable location for its centre: the equestrian statue of Charles I at the top of Whitehall. This traffic island, south of Trafalgar Square, was the original location of Charing Cross, and is the official centre of London. A plaque marking the spot reads:
'On the site now occupied by the statue of King Charles I was erected the original Queen Eleanor's cross a replica of which stands in front of Charing Cross station. Mileages from London are measured from the site of the original cross.'
The radius of the circle is not a round number of miles or kilometres, but instead is chosen to take advantage of convenient crossing places of the Thames. A circle that uses Tower Bridge and Albert Bridge creates a walk that fills one whole day (at least six hours, though often longer, depending on how much dawdling, sightseeing and stopping for food is done). A larger circle, crossing the Thames via the Rotherhithe Tunnel and Wandsworth Bridge, for example, would look much more geometrically perfect, but would take more than one day to complete.

Tim and I have since walked the route many times in both directions. We have agreed that, for reasons both aesthetic and practical, the walk is best done in a clockwise direction, and it is best to start at the middle of Tower Bridge (at '3 o'clock', if the circle is imagined as a clock face). The route begins by working its way south among the housing and industrial estates on either side of the Old Kent Road. Skirting the edge of Burgess Park, it runs between Kennington and Camberwell, crossing several of the large thoroughfares that slice through South London, reaching the southernmost point at Stockwell. The route then zigzags in between New Covent Garden at Nine Elms and the rail junction at Battersea, before emerging into Battersea Park, where it runs around the edge of the boating lake and up the steps to the Peace Pagoda. A small detour is needed to cross the river by Albert Bridge. Then the route ascends through Chelsea and South Kensington, round the Natural History Museum, through Imperial College and past the Royal College of Art, entering Kensington Gardens at Queen's Gate. This is the halfway point.

The walk exits at Lancaster Gate, does more zigzagging around Paddington Station and under the Marylebone Flyover, then joins Regent's Canal for a short stretch at Lisson Grove, entering Regent's Park next to the London Central Mosque. It crosses Regent's Park, and runs along the Outer Circle through the middle of London Zoo, exiting the park at Gloucester Gate. Up Parkway, through the heart of Camden Town, the route then has to do a large detour around the massive construction site still occupying the area north of King's Cross, which marks the northernmost point. Residential streets then take the walk through Barnsbury, across Islington Green and down to meet Regent's Canal again. There are some interesting back streets in the Hoxton/Shoreditch area before the route abruptly enters the City of London at Bishopsgate, runs down Petticoat Lane to Aldgate and Minories, before returning you to Tower Bridge. It is always a slightly surreal experience to return so abruptly to the point you started at earlier in the day.

The London Circle Walk contains some amazing and unexpected highlights. It also runs tantalizingly close to major well-known monuments, which it blithely ignores. There are places where shortcuts could be taken, in order to get closer to the geometric circle. All involve a degree of daring and/or illegality. Hire a boat to take you across Battersea Park boating lake to avoid going around it. Bribe a security guard to let you out the fire exit at the back of the Natural History Museum. Bring a ladder to break into London Zoo. A team of parkour enthusiasts could knock miles off the total distance. Building works currently underway suggest that the route will evolve at some point in the future, possibly bringing the walker closer to the True Circle, or further from it.

It is fascinating to observe what happens when an abstract geometrical shape is superimposed on an urban landscape, which is organized along lines that are partly rational, partly organic and partly chaotic. Different definitions of the word 'natural' come into conflict. Obviously, you are forced to think about cities in a different way, following a route that no one would normally take. As a walker, you are both bound by the constraints of the route (no deviation from the circle is permitted!) and liberated from those all-too-beaten paths that others have made. The route almost takes on a ritual quality. You cannot help but become aware of time and space, observing the linear passage of the sun across the sky as you yourself perform a symbolic tour of a cyclical universe encoded in microcosm.

In addition to this pretentious arty bollocks, the walk offers plenty of general inspiration. It offers a stark illustration of different social conditions along the way, passing both the Aylesbury Estate in Walworth and Cheyne Walk in Chelsea, for example. It includes a bus garage, a museum, a university, a giraffe enclosure, a hospital, a high-security police station and a theatre – a rich resource of material for any narrative or fiction that might aim to encompass a cross-section of London life. It is made up of concrete, water, grass, brick, glass, trees, steel and earth. It passes at least fifty pubs. And below street level lie generations of souls amid fields, streets and houses that have long vanished from view, not to mention an even more ancient geology and hydrology.