Thursday, 25 October 2018

'Around The World in 80 Words'

What staggers me most of all about linguist Paul Anthony Jones is how on earth he finds the time to research and write so many books about so many obscure facets of the English language, while also running the popular Haggard Hawks social media feeds (from where I pinched the above photo of his new book). The guy is prolific!

Jones' most recent book is Around the World in 80 Words, which was published on 25 October by Elliott & Thompson. And as the title of the book suggests, and the back cover blurb confirms, this is "a whimsical voyage through the far-flung reaches of the English language".

Having previously written books including 2015's Word Drops and last year's The Cabinet of Linguistic Curiosities, we can take it as read that when it comes to words, Jones knows what he's on about. And Around the World in 80 Words is tightly packed with facts, details and intense geographical etymological research. (There's a phrase I never expected to type!)

We start in London, as Jones tells us the origins of the phrase 'Kent Street ejectment' and whizzes the reader around the British capital to bring us from 18th century Southwark to the Shard in modern day London to tell us the answer. Elsewhere, we travel to Monaco to learn about the 'Monte Carlo fallacy', which is a story beginning in the 1850s and ending in a casino in 1913, as only a true life tale set in Monaco could. Other stops on this exhaustive tour of the world include China (where 'Xanadu' is our goal), Italy (where the root of 'magenta' is found in a tale of warfare), and Iran (where we spin back to the ancient world to begin unpicking the origins of the word 'parthian').

It's an utterly fascinating, fun and absorbing collection of all those words in the dictionary we owe to our maps and atlases. Jones knows what he's talking about and he knows how to tell a story without bogging readers down in the unnecessary extras. 

For fans of obscure facts, tongue twisting words and literary oddities, anything written by Paul Anthony Jones is a treat. And Around the World in 80 Words will not disappoint. 

You can read a sample chapter from the book on the Haggard Hawks website.

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Hollering Woman Creek

For her third solo show, writer Amy Mason draws on her experiences as a newly pregnant woman travelling in Texas to research her second novel, which is about life on death row.

With her boyfriend in tow for the trip, and a recent instruction from her GP to come off her psych meds just like that (despite the months spent gently building up the dose), in Hollering Woman Creek Amy is confronted by an American state that puts the well-being of the foetus far above the well-being of the woman carrying that foetus. Posters in bars threaten any pregnant woman even considering a sip of an alcoholic drink; hotel hot tubs are bedecked in labels that they are not suitable for expectant mothers; the list goes on.

What ensues is a touching and thoughtful hour about how frightening it is to face an unplanned pregnancy, and the unique spin created when the women in question is also researching the topic of death row. Amy describes a visit to a death row museum gift shop, where other tourists are posing for selfies with the electric chair while she is left feeling sick and faint at the sight of it.

The title of the show, Hollering Woman Creek, comes from an area in Texas so-named because it is reportedly haunted by the screaming spirit of a grieving mother who has drowned her newborn baby in the water because the father has deserted her. It is claimed that her soul haunts the creek to this day, and if you get too close to the water she might pull you in and drown you, too, believing that you yourself are her baby.

In the show’s culmination, Amy (riddled with prenatal depression and haywire from coming off her medication too quickly) finds herself at Hollering Woman Creek where she must make a definite decision about her future.

On stage with Amy throughout the show are musicians Megan Henwood and Elizabeth Westcott, with a score composed by the multi-award winning Megan. This absolutely completes the show and Megan’s music and voice are very special indeed. (I rushed home and looked her up online.)

Hollering Woman Creek is performed in the Weston Studio at Bristol Old Vic every day until Saturday October 20. Click here for more information and to book tickets.

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

'Windrush: Movement of the People'


What a mesmerising, captivating and completely absorbing performance Windrush: Movement of the People is. I was lucky enough to catch it at Bristol Old Vic, where it is only on for two nights at the start of a tour to various venues around the UK (check the link at the end of this post for more information).

Created by the impressive Phoenix Dance Theatre, Windrush celebrates and illuminates the promises, reality and hope during this 70th anniversary year of the arrival of the SS Empire Windrush, which brought the first Caribbean migrants to the UK. The boat brought 492 people (known as the Windrush generation) from the Caribbean to the UK in 1948 in a moment that marked the start of the post war immigration boom that led to a radical shift in British society.

The soundtrack by Christella Litras is evocative and effective, spinning between calypso, jazz, gospel, reggae and more, and completely brings to life the changes occuring in those crucial decades of Britain’s formative multicultural era. The refrain of “You called and we came” from a poem read aloud is particularly haunting, as the newly arrived immigrants are shunned and excluded from a hostile British society.

Choreographer (and Phoenix Dance Company artistic director) Sharon Watson creates an extraordinary story that introduces us to our protagonists who are full of hope at what a move to the UK might mean (the sunny orange lighting supporting this), and then the awful reality of racism and bigotry that they encounter once here (portrayed by eerie faceless dancers in masks who wonderfully conjure up a sense of fear and ignorance, and backed up by dark and sombre lighting), followed by the sense of community and camaraderie that is fostered as a result (matched by the warmth of interior lighting). The duet between a reunited couple (Vanessa Vince-Pang, pictured above, and Prentice Whitlow), who had been parted for months, is especially beautiful to watch.

Windrush: Movement of the People is utterly mesmerising and I was gasping when the performance ended. I wanted to watch more and I want to watch it again. Don’t miss this!

Windrush is at Bristol Old Vic for two nights only, as part of its UK tour. It is performed at Bristol Old Vic as part of the Seeds of Change week, which is itself a part of Black History Month.  For more information on the national tour of Windrush, please click here.

Monday, 8 October 2018

Down in Demerara

There’s a suspicion that Felix Radstock has gone on holiday by mistake…

The protagonist in Mike Manson’s third novel Down in Demerara is a freelance labour market research analyst who is plucked from his sleepy Bristol office by the mysterious DoDO organisation to head to Guyana on a fact finding mission. What follows is the hilarious but touching story of an innocent abroad in a very unusual place.

Guyana is a real place on the northern mainland of South America, yet few people have heard of it (myself included, prior to reading Down in Demerara). So Mike handily provides us with a hand-drawn map at the front of the book, locating Guyana and its capital Georgetown with the other areas of the country that Felix visits. And Mike creates a wonderful mental film for the reader of the sights and sounds of the South American wildlife and habitats, drawn from his own visits there.

Set in 1999, with the shadow of the millennium bug looming over the world, Felix is feeling the growing pressure to finish his report about this little known South American country (and return to the safety of Bristol and his fiance) before Christmas and before the world implodes when the Y2K bug destroys all the infrastructure. But before that can happen, our innocent abroad has to put his trust in a lot of unlikely characters as he navigates his way around an increasingly bizarre state of affairs. The sense of paranoia and panic is escalating.

With his driver and assistant Xavier leading him a merry dance, Felix finds his preconceptions - and misconceptions - challenged. He is wrong to think Xavier is simply a driver; he is wrong to think the mysterious Roxy actually wants to measure his head for a hat; and he is wrong to think he really knows why DoDo has sent him to Guyana... as Felix’s heart-rending visit to the gold mines in the heart of the bush and rainforest reveal.

As well as being a ramshackle travelogue, Down in Demerara is also a ecological warning, gently advising the reader of the importance of making a difference, however small it seems. Always be suspicious of the big, evil corporations. But always be gentle to blue butterflies.

Mike Manson writes with a gentle, friendly and humorous tone that makes you feel from page one that you are in the company of a friend. As with his other novels, Down in Demerara is a comfortable read that draws you in quickly, but it is also pleasing to note the leaps and bounds that Mike’s writing has matured by in his third novel (no doubt thanks to the guidance of his writing tutor Fay Weldon: if you’re going to take advice from anyone, Fay is pretty much as good as it gets!). Mike’s own passion for spreading the word about the magic of Guyana and for challenging our assumptions about people and places comes through loud and clear, and makes for a refreshing and funny read in his sparkling new book.

Down In Demerara is published by Tangent Books. Pre-order your copy from this link.