Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Language of the Old and the Young

I was ticked off by my daughter one fine day earlier this year, I saluted Councillor Cowie in the centre of Leek with a “What a gorgeous day”. Phoebe took a dim view and told me that I should not use the word “gorgeous” as it was a girlie word and that boys should use words like “epic” or “cool”. “Epic”, I countered meant big or on the grand scale while “ cool” in describing a warm evening did not sound right. I was told not to use the word again as it might damage her social standing. When I mentioned it on a social network site a debate ensued on how the word “sick” had altered in modern speak now to mean “great”.

The confusion at exists between the older and younger generation has been the stuff of social commentators for many years. Perhaps an early example is demonstrated in the classically comic novel “Diary of a Nobody” written by George and Weedon Grossmith in 1892. The novel describes that North London suburban life of a member of the middle class who yearns for respectability and to be a pillar of local society, but his pomposity only invites ridicule from among others his son the contumacious Lupin on a day trip to Broadstairs.

August 17. - Lupin not falling in with our views, Carrie and I went for a sail. It was a relief to be with her alone; for when Lupin irritates me, she always sides with him. On our return, he said: “Oh, you’ve been on the ’Shilling Emetic,’ have you? You’ll come to six-pennorth on the ’Liver Jerker’ next.” I presume he meant a tricycle, but I affected not to understand him”.

Phoebe used the word “cool” to describe something that is good I have always thought that it was a word that came from jazz although it might be older than that with some dictionaries suggesting that it had 19th century origins.

It’s with jazz that the slang term was most closely associated and out of which it became more widely known throughout the English-speaking world. In the fifties cool could have a variety of meanings ranging from being restrained, relaxed, laid-back, detached, cerebral on the one hand but also meaning, stylish, excellent, or other confirmatory meanings. It became the totemic word of the Beat generation which later migrated into teenage slang in the 60s.

Another word that is older than is thought is “dude” which originally meant a snappy dresser and was coined by Cowboys to mean Easterners who visited the Wild West during the 1880s. There was in fact a “Dude” President, the 21st President Chester Arthur (1881- 1884) who was always well turned out with luxuriant sideburns. Now to quote a modern dictionary “it is a universal word, used in every possible corner of the globe, in every possible situation”.

Text language, of course, opens up another aspect, but it did amuse me to discover that the letters OMG meaning “O my God” according to Stephen Fry were coined by the First Sea Lord Jackie Fisher in a letter to his friend Winston Churchill during the First World War

Broadway and a Leek Man

New York is a wonderful town. It is easy to find your way around, the Bronx is up and the Battery’s down.  In my opinion anyone who has been to the Big Apple cannot help but be enchanted by it. I have my own personal favourites- Central Park, Greenwich Village, Central Station and Broadway. Broadway must have been an area of New York that a certain returning native of Leek must have known very well. In 1947 after an absence of 35 years William G Kelsall, a former pupil of St Mary’s, was sitting in the front room of his mother’s house 17 The Walks and reminiscing about the Leek he had left in 1914 as a 19 year old. He said the Sisters at his old school had taught him how to perform on stage. It was a lesson he learned well. The reporter who covered his home coming was something in awe of this well manicured, tanned middle aged man in his immaculately tailored suit and red and yellow silk tie. Mr Kelsey, to use his stage name, was bringing greetings from some of the established stars of the day such as Betty Grable, Rita Hayworth, Dorothy Lamour and George Raft. He also brought a large basket of fruit as a gift which in austerity hit Britain would have seemed miraculous.

He told his story on how he left Leek helped by his father who had also appeared on the Broadway stage. William Calvert appeared in a few comedies before the First World War. After he served an apprenticeship in Canada William came under the wing of Henry E Dixey a long established comedy actor and producer in New York. Kelsey went into vaudeville and then was involved with one of the long running hits of the 20s “Blossom Time”. Kelsey acted alongside the redoubtable Eugene Leontivitch who later starred in the play “Grand Hotel” in the role that Greta Garbo played in the film. Kelsey had worked with Bing Crosby in the early days of his career and a high point was performing before President Roosevelt at the White House. At the time of visiting his mother in Leek he was appearing in a long running TV program a review called “Gay Nineties”.

And yet he does not appear in the comprehensive Broadway performer database although his father does. A clue about Kelsey at this time can be found through his daughter Ena Rollini. Ena was married to Art who was a tenor saxophone player in the Benny Goodman Orchestra and played in the famous performance at Carnegie Hall in 1938. Art produced a memoir of his career as a jazz musician in the 1980s when he describes meeting Ena for the first time in 1932.  She was living with her mother the Shelton born May Kelsall who was running the cloak room  concession in a Californian club when she met Art. She told the musician that her father had appeared in “Blossom Time” but was suffering hard times and was working as a singing waiter. He could not afford to send any money to his family.

It may well be that William Kelsey recovered his status and wealth by 1947. If so he would have been very grateful to President Roosevelt the architect of the recovery

The Art of Noise

I was listening to  Radio 4 about the intention of producing a European soundscape by a Swedish researcher. The soundscape would consist of noises we hear in everyday life. I wonder what people think is a distinctive English sound? Church bells, the whack of willow on leather, the beep of the supermarket till, the roar of traffic, a brass band?

Sound means a great deal to me. I spent the first 10 years of my life in an industrialised area of Stoke in the early 60s which had a very noticeable clamour which instantly takes me back.

We lived between a railway line and the canal and there were also factories and workshops in the street. The sound that the wagons made as they were shunted into sidings with the distinctive, diminishing clatter they made along with the sound of the steam engines as they pulled out of Stoke Station with their whistles was a very early memory. In that period many boats worked the canal. Their engines strained and spluttered as barges moved along the Trent and Mersey making phut, phut sounds and a final cacophony when they unloaded into silos. Over the road was a cooper’s making barrels with the scream of a high powered saw and the banging of mallets fixing the hoops of iron around the planks. Further along the street was a mill that ground flint with the deep pounding, rather satisfying sound. On match days we could hear the roar of crowds of 40,000 from the Victoria Ground less than a mile away from Lytton St.

Then there were the street cries of the rag and bone man and clip clop of horses hooves, the  man who sold the local paper, bawling out “Sen-tin-ell” and the costermonger’s distinctive “Cooking Ap-pels, ripe pears,
 fresh to-ma-toes””. Street cries, of course, go back a long way. The 16th century composer Orlando Gibbons noted down the hawkers of the capital in “Cries of London” .

 Today I can experience the yell of the scrap metal dealer seeking bargains in Leek.

It would also be a mistake to think that the countryside is a silent. Once on Stiperstones in Shropshire some years ago I made a note of the sounds I could hear early one Saturday morning. The roar of a tractor, the barking of a farm dog, the cawing of crows, the sound of a jet far above- all were  recorded.
 And of course places and the noise they generate  can change as the  newspaper account from 1936 of Froghall Wharf  proves “ Some 50 years ago the basin was a scene of bustling activity with limestone being broken into ballast grades by large groups of men, limestone was burned into agricultural lime. On the other side of the canal brick making was practised and further into the valley coal was mined from galleries running into the valley sides”.

 There would have been sounds of heavy industry with  bricks being made and stacked, of limestone being crushed and materials being loaded on to narrow boats of wagons, of steam trains trundling up the valley and the shriek of hooters and yells of men.

 In short, a scene of noisy frantic activity and not the untouched sylvan glade we see now.