The End of Summer in Locktown

FIRST REFLECTIONS ON CORONATIMES

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Ironically, the self-isolation I have been practising for the last seven months did not mean that I was without work. Periods of WFH alternated with forays into an empty city. Youth crime subsided at first but did not disappear during the pandemic: importantly for me the gathering and analysis of evidence and preparations for trials involving gang violence continued, and I continued to help defence teams and prosecutors to interpret the language used in messaging and Drill lyrics generated by suspects living in gang environments (as described in earlier posts on this site). In April I wrote an article for the Magistrates Association about the relationships between language, youth and crime*

During my time in quarantine I continued to record and comment on the language of the pandemic itself as well as the toxic terminology of populist politics and racism. At the beginning of September the team at Lexis Podcast gave me a fresh opportunity to talk about these topics (my comments are in the second half of the recording)…

I had time, too, to write a profile of the humble, enigmatic London outsider artist, known only as Albert, for Raw Vision magazine…

https://rawvision.com/articles/ideal-homes-imaginary-elevations

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* THE WORD ON THE STREET

‘Bad language’ and why you should really try to keep up

Studies have shown that the language of the court can be intimidating and perplexing for some of those who pass through it. We naturally hope that all of those involved in legal proceedings have sufficient command of a language in common to conduct their business successfully. There are times, however, when language barriers become apparent and it becomes necessary to interpret, to translate – foreign tongues used by other nationalities of course – but also new and unfamiliar language originating in our own communities.

Language is something that we tend to take for granted; it’s a facility that every human possesses and uses constantly. In the workplace we have to depend on a shared understanding of language, whether formal, legalistic or conversational. Professional linguists, however, see language differently and distinguish not only between informal, conversational speech and formal or technical language, but between a ‘dialect’ – the language of a region, a ‘sociolect’ – the language of a particular group such as a specific profession, ethnic group, age-group or social class, and even an ‘idiolect’, the words, phrases and turns of speech favoured by a single individual.

The closer we look at the language people are using, the more potential there is for misunderstanding. There is the problem of keeping abreast of rapid changes – of learning new terms, making sense of popular entertainment catchphrases and reality TV references, for example (‘Love Island’ springs to mind). Perhaps the problem is most acute when it’s the language of another generation. Parents, teachers, police officers, too, struggle to make sense of the latest playground slang, gamers’ terminology and the bizarre expressions uttered by music fans, fashionistas and YouTube stars. Abbreviations used in texting and on social media  – YOLO, FOMO, SMH (‘you only live once’, ‘fear of missing out’, ‘shaking my head’) can also be baffling for older observers – not surprisingly because this sort of language is not designed to be understood by outsiders. Insiders use slang as a badge of identity to show that they belong to a particular group, equally it is used to exclude the people they don’t want to associate with; the old, the boring, the unfashionable and the unglamorous. Many users of slang, though, are surprisingly sensitive to what linguists call ‘appropriacy’ – matching their choice of language to the social situation – and wouldn’t employ a highly informal style in a formal setting such as a court. Problems arise when evidence involves language recorded in very different contexts.

If you struggle to understand the teenagers and young people around you when they call their schoolfriend a ‘durkboi’ or a ‘wasteman’ (both mean useless male) and try to cadge some ‘p’s’, ‘gwop’ or ‘Lizzies’ (all slang for money), you are not alone. There is a shared slang vocabulary that has established itself throughout the UK, often replacing colourful older usages (such as rhyming slang: ‘once a week’, a synonym of ‘beak’ or magistrate has disappeared) or local dialect. Popular words include ‘piff’, ‘peng’, ‘dench’, ‘gully’, all used to express admiration, ‘bare’ meaning many (as in ‘bare feds’ or ‘bare jakes‘, lots of police), ‘bait’ meaning obvious, ‘bruv’ and ‘fam’ denoting one’s friends or group. ‘Chirpsin’, ‘linkin’ and ‘lipsin’ refer to flirting, dating and kissing respectively.

New terms are being coined all the time because novelty is what gives the words their edgy, progressive quality, but, contrary to what many people assume, slang doesn’t fall out of use for years, it just moves from an older to a younger cohort; as it’s abandoned by the most self-consciously ‘cool’ it is picked up by the latecomers. A few parents and some teachers have managed to learn some of these terms, but trying to use them will inevitably provoke ridicule. In a 2017 survey only 4% of parents were able to successfully translate messaging slang, while 65% tried but repeatedly failed or misunderstood.

Slang, whether used covertly or out in the open, is a feature of all societies and languages and of all age-groups, too. It’s well established that those engaged in criminal activity, lawlessness or antisocial behaviour develop their own secret languages in order to communicate privately and to prevent outsiders from understanding these communications. Teenagers and young adults likewise develop their own slangs and restricted terminologies and often include vocabulary coined by gang members and criminals because it seems glamorous and daring. In the US and the UK highly informal youth-based dialects have arisen and the terminology in question is also used in music lyrics and on social media. The language of US rap and hip-hop music and UK–based varieties such as Grime or Drill music mixes AfricanCaribbean influences, especially Jamaican ‘patois’, with local colloquial speech and will be familiar to many young people, even those who are not engaged in antisocial or criminal activity. This kind of language is very rarely picked up by mainstream media, is not normally recorded in standard dictionaries and is difficult for linguists to collect. I do so by monitoring online messaging and online discussions among slang enthusiasts or slang users, examining music lyrics and, most importantly, by interviewing slang users themselves (as slang is still more a spoken than written variety) and asking them to give or send me examples of language used by them and their peers. Slang is not deficient language; it performs its functions efficiently in conveying meaning. However, because it is an underground, alternative code it is not subject to rules and authorities. This can often result in the same slang term having multiple meanings (hood, for example can refer to a criminal ‘hoodlum’ or to the neighbourhood in which they operate) and in meanings varying to some extent between one group of users and another. It also means that (because they are based on speech and not on written sources) the spellings of slang terms may vary and may be used inconsistently.

I have been collecting the slangs of adults and of younger speakers operating in all sorts of contexts, publishing a succession of dictionaries and articles over the years and teaching and broadcasting about these and other ‘nonstandard’ and controversial areas of language. As a linguist I became fascinated by a kind of language that, although exotic, anti-social, irreverent and frequently offensive is technically as complex and as creative as poetry or literature. It’s only by deciphering and understanding this sort of language – or rather these languages – that we can hope to enter the world of teenage cliques, young-adult in-groups and gangs, to come to make sense of their rituals and obsessions, their thoughts and feelings.

For more than a decade, and increasingly over the last five years I have been helping the police forces who are trying to control street crime and the lawyers who are defending those accused (nearly all of them still in their teens or early twenties). My task as a language analyst and an expert witness is to translate and comment on the slang terminology found on confiscated mobile phones, obtained by surveillance and electronic intercepts, or used in the course of live interviews. I’ve found that the officers in question and the legal representatives are dedicated, unprejudiced, painstaking and privately distressed by what they witness day-to-day. They may become familiar with the exotic, shocking language they are exposed to, but they require an expert objectively to interpret and assess the written or recorded evidence they work with, if necessary, too, an expert who can stand in court and testify on their or their clients’ behalf.

In looking at recordings of gang member’s conversations, for example, it’s crucial to know that a ‘burner’ or a ‘mash’ is a handgun; ‘dotty’ means shotgun, ‘Rambo’, ‘ramsay’, ‘cutter’, ‘shank’ or ‘nank’ is knife. When looking at jottings in a teenager’s notebook or listening to a hardcore Drill track recorded by a gang associate it’s essential to identify ‘trap’ as a term for selling drugs or the location where it takes place, ‘plug’ as a drug source, ‘dip’ as stab, ‘op’ as enemy, ‘duppy’ as kill, ‘dasheen’ as run away. The same words, catchphrases and slogans are shared across London and into other UK centres: the same gang culture with its obsession with status and respect, its territorial feuding and its violent tendencies seems to apply everywhere.

Nobody expects the average adult, even if an educated, articulate professional to be fluent either in the language of innocent teenagers or the criminal codes used by gang members. Where, then, can a legal professional or law enforcer go in order to get help with slang and street language? Standard published dictionaries do not offer much assistance, even dictionaries specialising in slang do not usually manage to keep up to date and to define and explain the latest terms. Magazine features purporting to explain what millennials and Generation Z are saying are invariably frivolous and inaccurate. One valuable resource is the online Urban Dictionary (www.urbandictionary.com) a collection of language posted on the internet by real people. Its entries are up to date and usually authentic, but more than half of the expressions on the site originate in the USA and some of the posts are private jokes or local nicknames. There is a small dictionary of the language of rappers and gangsters on my own website (https://language-and-innovation.com/2018/04/19/a-drill-dictionary/), and I can answer general slang enquiries at The King’s College Archive if contacted at tony.thorne@kcl.ac.uk.

PATTERNS AND VISIONS – THE WORKS OF LOUIS WAIN

In January and February 2016 Bethlem Museum of the Mind is staging an exhibition devoted to the art of Louis Wain, once a patient at the Bethlem Royal Hospital, formerly the notorious  ‘Bedlam’ asylum in Southeast London where in earlier times the public came to gaze at inmates. Wain is categorised as a visionary or outsider artist, like other self-taught creators who work outside the mainstream and share characteristics such as reclusiveness, mental impairment or extreme eccentricity. He is among the best known practitioners of outsider art,  also known as Art Brut, because his sequences of images seemed to many to track the progressive psychological or psychic disintegration that accompanies a ‘descent’ into mental illness.

Here is my profile of Wain, followed by details of the exhibition.

 

THE PERFECT CAT AND ITS CREATOR

 By Tony Thorne

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‘The solitary one more real persian cat is the one that is now going to be the one that is the real living animal left alone until the call is given to it at night time this evening … This can be done by giving the call directly the light is seen after the first sleep is over… It is the perfect cat made the more perfect by the willingness given to it.’

 This bizarre text, scribbled on the obverse of a cat portrait, is the work of someone who was once one of England’s most renowned illustrators. Born in London in1860, the artist and visionary Louis Wain travelled a path from obscurity to fame, and back again into seclusion and silence, before his death in 1939 in Napsbury Hospital in Hertfordshire. He was born with a slightly deformed mouth and was kept apart from other children until the age of ten. Even after that the dreamy, distracted boy rarely attended school, preferring to wander around museums and the London dockyards, inhabiting his own private world. He found his vocation at the West London Institute of Art where he studied and for a while taught, before turning to freelance illustration to make his living, beginning with accomplished, naturalistic drawings of birds, dogs, rabbits and fish. When his new wife Emily lay dying of cancer in their home, Louis sat at her bedside and drew her faithful companion, their cat, Peter, and it was these drawings that first caught the public imagination. From 1890 Wain’s cat caricatures, reproduced in magazines like the Illustrated London News and Punch, became a bestselling part of the Edwardian fashion for sentimental pictures of animals, especially dressed as humans and playing human roles, and the artist became a household name.

An early painting, also from 1890, of a group of cats watching a beetle crossing a tablecloth, is both a tour de force of oil technique and, in the intensity of the cats’ quizzical expressions, a faint precursor of future strangeness, (or is this just because we see it with hindsight, knowing what was to become of the artist?)

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Louis himself was considered a charming, shy eccentric with an odd, indirect conversational style: he liked particularly to talk of cats’ unusual links with electricity, their sensitivity and intelligence, he tried to interest breeders in developing a spotted variety of cat. He not only depicted cats again and again, acting out fairy-tales, posing in oriental vignettes, impersonating Edwardian gentlemen, in sketches, paintings and book illustrations, on postcards and on keepsakes, to the delight of his new audience, but became a public figure, a champion and patron of the cat as a cherished pet with a life of its own (a late Victorian and Edwardian novelty; previously they had been kept, by men at least, mainly to control vermin). In the decade before World War I Wain was producing up to 600 cat pictures every year; his Louis Wain Annual appeared in 1901, was published every year until 1914, then occasionally up to 1923. ‘English cats that do not look like Louis Wain cats are ashamed of themselves’, pronounced the writer H.G Wells.

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In 1907 Wain’s fame took him to the USA, but, never able to manage money and hopeless at negotiating adequate fees, he returned to London penniless. Not long after this came the first signs of a profound psychic change, and a gradual transformation of the artist’s vision which can be tracked through his later, unpublished works. It is this latter phase of Wain’s working life that has fascinated scholars and members of the medical community. The cats, still playing ball, picnicking, performing on musical instruments, frolicking in gardens, appear more frenzied or ecstatic, their fur electrified, the colours heightened, even livid. Later the titles and printing instructions pencilled on the back of his pictures sometimes mutate into rambling mystical texts, creeping over the page and onto the illustrations themselves.

Wain had spent most of his widowhood living with his five sisters, the youngest of whom, Marie became convinced that she was suffering from leprosy, was witnessing murders, and was certified insane in 1900. Tellingly, in the same year, thirteen years after his wife’s tragic death, Wain recollected that he, she and Peter the cat had formed points on an electric circuit, Emily and the cat acting as batteries. He later imagined that visits to the cinema were robbing his sisters of the electricity which animated them. After Caroline, his eldest sister, died in 1917 Louis’ behaviour became more and more erratic, finally violent. In 1924 he was formally diagnosed as suffering from dementia and placed in a pauper’s ward in Springfield asylum, where the diagnosis was revised to one of schizophrenia. The patient said that he had been ‘bothered by spirits night and day for six years.’ It seemed as if his public had forgotten him, but one year later he was discovered and a campaign by celebrities, including aristocrats, the most eminent authors (Galsworthy and Wells among them) and the prime minister himself, raised thousands of pounds for his care and resulted in him being moved to more pleasant surroundings. While he was incarcerated in the Bethlem Hospital in South London (heir to the infamous Bedlam), Wain made a black-and-white sketch of the hospital exterior, the wards in the background, a solitary cat in the foreground. He presented the drawing as a gift to a visiting clergyman, ‘the cat’, he declared, ‘is me.’

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From the early 1920s some abstract tapestry-like patterns had started to appear in Wain’s work, first perhaps recalling the oriental textiles in which his father traded and his mother’s religious embroideries, but becoming more and more spiked and vivid until they begin to invade the foreground, merging with and finally in some cases overwhelming the central images. Possibly better known today than any of the early, conventional works or the jaunty, lovable caricatures is a sequence of five cat portraits, preserved in the Guttman-Maclay archive at the Bethlem museum, that seem to illustrate in the most dramatic way the gradual disintegration of a human personality, a realistic cat morphing into a frenzied apparition before fragmenting into a kaleidoscope of jagged, electrified particles. These images have been reproduced in textbooks and generally taken as visual evidence of mental breakdown, but the truth may be a little more complicated. It’s doubtful that these undated works were completed in the order they are shown and some have tried to claim that they come from very different periods of Wain’s career, (although the staff who nursed him confirmed that they all appeared in the 1930s).

From a conventional viewpoint, Wain may indeed seem a textbook case of schizophrenia, (more recent speculations have included toxoplasmosis and Asperger’s Syndrome) but looked at with a more open mind, his journey can be appreciated in a different way. The gentle, baffled, unworldly outsider comes to identify with the cat for its extreme delicacy and its instinctive, mysterious empathy…and the faint static experienced when stroking its fur becomes an obsession with electrical currents. The distinction between the cat, the self and their surroundings begins to blur. One less orthodox take on so-called schizophrenia is that it is an extreme case of sensitivity and empathy in which the individual personality dissolves, moves beyond our banal human concerns and eventually becomes one with its environment, with all of creation.

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During the last period of his life Louis Wain also produced a series of mysterious psychedelic landscapes, part imaginary, partly referencing indirectly real places that he may have known or seen. These scenes usually contain no cats, some depict birds or deer among streams, waterfalls, blossoms and bright coloured leaves, several no living thing at all. In one such work, ‘Ethereal City’, a lone human figure, a tiny man in suit and hat, wheels a trolley through the foreground. Behind him stretch steep hills and deep valleys, more Tibetan than English, with white castellated buildings and walls winding into the distance. Others feature different styles of architecture; mock-Tudor baronial or oriental cupolas. (Wain’s signature on these paintings, incidentally, is clear and firm, identical to those on the early, celebrated productions.)

The late landscapes seem to show a serene, though magically, surreally luminous, world into which the artist himself was disappearing. His visitors in his last years described a peaceful old gentleman, sweeping up leaves or meditating in a deckchair, his agitation and aggression long subsided: still physically inhabiting his quiet institutional home, he perhaps had entered another even more tranquil, idyllic place. As he himself once wrote: ‘I am the origin of nothing I came to the world to try to be the whole of creation I was told the world went round I was told the world went to sleep I awoke to the truth. I was nothing…’

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In recent years new generations have rediscovered Wain’s cats – his first posthumous exhibition was in 1972 – and he is once again a celebrated, bestselling artist. Now, though, our appreciation of him must be more complex, taking in the fantastical, unsettling, transcendent hinterland of the cat and its creator along with the charm and enchantment of the wide-eyed, cavorting felines.

Copyright Tony Thorne 2017

 

Here are details of the current exhibition of Wain’s works, with an excellent review and biography and links to related sites of interest:

https://outsideinpallant.wordpress.com/2017/01/16/the-art-of-louis-wain/

 

 

OUTSIDERS IN ART

 

As well as writing about ‘non-standard’ and marginalised varieties of language I have written about practitioners of so-called Outsider Art (Art Brut). This is a short extract from a profile of Nick Blinko for Raw Vision magazine

 

THE DEVIL IS IN THE DETAIL

Tony Thorne

Nick Blinko

…’The religious and the macabre are a big part of my personality,’ Nick Blinko said, adding wryly ‘…there wouldn’t be much left without them.’ Not all the faces in Blinko’s fantastically intricate confrontations with his own demons are malignant: among the skulls, imps, fractured dolls, leather-clad foetuses, oranges that might be little suns (- branded with the cross), idols, mushroom-beings, phalluses…there are ironic faces, mischievous things. There is more than a hint of humour in Blinko’s conversation, too. He is affable and articulate and responds politely to the questions from the interviewer, but when the tapes of the conversations (two of them, almost a year apart) are re-played, two things are evident.

He ís holding back. The 35 year-old talks readily enough of producing pictures all his life, from the coats-of-arms he designed for his dolls through the ‘Tudor Asylum drawn in white ink on black paper when he was nine or ten, and his copies of Nicholas Hilliard’s Elizabethan miniatures one year later, to the wholly original masterworks dating from the mid -1980s which came about after months of working four to eight hours a day, sitting cross-legged on a bed in a state of hypnotic concentrated melancholia (his parents coming and going; ‘Oh Look, he’s done another inch!’), astonished at his own virtuosity; ‘I got into it as a viewer as well as a producer.

As the paper fills up, you, the artist, are intrigued.’ Sitting for days on end, balancing the drawing board across his knees, using the finest of pens, obsessively conjuring the most intricate, unedited patterns into existence, he thought at times that, like Bodhidharma the founder of Zen, his legs would just wither away beneath him. He admits suicide attempts. The first at the age of eighteen; ‘There were triggers. I was reading Diane Arbus’ autobiography and I was reading Krishnamurti and Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception at the same time – alternately, one sentence from each.’ And again at twenty-six ; ‘… an immense frustration with the art drove me to it. I couldn’t get my concentration. I planned to hire a place in London and have an exhibition of my pictures to explain why I was taking my life.’ In fact an exhibition at the National Schizophrenia Fellowship in 1994 first brought his art to public attention; he is now represented in the Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne…

 

Read the full article in: 

Raw Vision #17

Keywords: 

Drawing

Obsession

Institutionalised

 

From 4 October 2017 Nick Blinko’s work will be on show at the Jennifer Lauren Gallery in London. Details are here:

https://www.jenniferlaurengallery.com/upcoming/