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Sunday, 15 December 2013

Carnaby Street’s Great Uninvited – Around the World in 80 Years

Words are all we have – Samuel Beckett
There are too many words in the English language. And yet more and more are being coined every day. Why? You’d honestly think by now there would be a word for everything and yet, perversely, there isn’t and most of the words that we have are nowhere near as precise as I for one would like them to be. Is ‘huge’ the same, for example, as ‘enormous’ or ‘vast’ or ‘gigantic’? Or what about ‘whacking great’, ‘whopping’ or ‘humongous’? Let’s face it they’re all pretty much interchangeable but is huge the same as ‘plus big’ or ‘double plus big’? And what’s the ratio of ‘big’ to ‘plus big’ to ‘double plus big’? You see, even with Newspeak it’s still possible to be vague.

Want to wager a few quid on whether ‘huge’ or ‘enormous’ or ‘vast’ or ‘gigantic’ will even be around in, say, a hundred years’ time? The rise and fall of words is a fascinating subject when you get into it. Why do certain words survive unscathed for thousands of years—words like ‘I’ or ‘thou’ or ‘who’—whereas others are gone within a few decades? Does ‘cool’ still mean ‘groovy’? If I started peppering my posts with ‘cool’ and ‘groovy’ nowadays I’d sound like a right Herbert or whatever the current buzzword is for a square dude. Of course ‘square’ is still with us but now it means what it always did: a regular parallelogram whose internal angles are all 90º and whose sides are all of equal length.

Occasionally words go out of fashion and then make a comeback. The phrase “hey-ho” has apparently been returned to dictionaries recently—thanks to the Internet it seems:
"A lot of internet communication is written speech, or transliterated speech," says Tony Thorne, a language consultant at King's College London. "Social media is all about nudging and poking. It's a more amplified conversation."
Ultimately, finding written ways to express the visual—like shrugging—is a key component of internet communication and social networks, says Mr Thorne. "People introduce these light hearted conversational things which normally you only find in speech," he says.
In that way, he suggests, "hey-ho" could just be the new emoticon. – Laura Schocker, ‘Why has “hey-ho” made a comeback?’, BBC News Magazine, 1 September 2009
Makes perfect sense in the age of ever-contracting communication styles but does that mean that all big words are doomed? And there are some lovely big words kicking around, words like ‘nincompoop’ (possibly a contraction of non compos mentis), which we’ve had since the mid-1600s: can you imagine one kid calling another a nincompoop, a ninny perhaps—a further contraction of the word—but I wonder how many would have a clue about the word’s origins?

maudEvolution is all about the survival of the fittest and the fact is that some words are no longer fit for purpose and have been replaced. Is that such a bad thing? The English language still has more words available to us than any of us use. Does it matter that the days of words like ‘aerodrome’ and ‘charabanc’ are numbered? Just like the Yangtze Finless Porpoise and the Humphead Wrasse are on the World Wildlife Fund’s Endangered Species List so likewise ‘aerodrome’ and ‘charabanc’ are on Collins Dictionary’s endangered words list. As a kid I thought ‘charabanc’ was ‘charabang’ because that’s how my dad pronounced it. It was one of his ambitions—sadly, never fulfilled—to drive one. So it’s a word I’ll take to the grave with me but I wonder how long it’ll survive after that. Should we let it die a natural death or try to preserve it? Does it deserve our protection? What if some pop star called their next album Charabanc? Would that guarantee it respite for another generation?

Like all writers—at least I’d like to think all writers feel the same as I do—I’m passionate about words. I love to discover new ones. As a kid I would literally sit and read the dictionary or Hartrampf’s Vocabulary Builder which was on the endangered books list until 2007 when it reappeared with a fancy new cover. Here’s what a reviewer says in Amazon:
This book was first bought for me when I was twelve. It changed my life. Better than a thesaurus, more comprehensive and easier to use, it expanded my vocabulary and was the foundation for the love of language I have never lost.
I am thrilled to see that it is still available. All budding rappers, poets, school kids and their teachers should possess this book!
I concur. Another writer who I expect would agree with us would be Safia Shah, author of (the wordy bits at least) of Carnaby Street’s Great Uninvited – Around the World in 80 Years; the artwork was contributed by Mark Reeve. More on him later.

Safia_Shah_Journalist_and_WriterSafia Shah—now Safia Thomas—is a British writer, editor and television news producer. She was born in London in 1966 and, for several years, ran a respected traditional delicatessen, A. Gold in London, specializing in entirely British fare. She now lives close to Casablanca in Morocco which explains, perhaps, why her latest book, Carnaby Street’s Great Uninvited – Around the World in 80 Years, is set there despite the rather British-sounding title. The title is misleading. Carnaby Street is a person, a young girl—she looks about seventeen—and the book’s narrator; her fez-wearing younger brother is called Oxford. Odd names in children’s books are not uncommon—Arrietty in The Borrowers, Hermione in the Harry Potter novels (the name’s popularity was at an all-time low in 2010 and now’s at an all-time high) or Horton from the Dr Seuss book which despite the film adaptation has still not Carnabyproved that popular with parents)—but, perhaps because I’m a Scot, I didn’t much care for Carnaby Street as a name. On my first read I actually thought it was the boy—for some reason I expected the boy to be the narrator—and wondered why Safia didn’t call him Barnaby. We don’t learn what their parents’ first names are but we are introduced to a number of their relatives—the great uninvited of the title—such as Florence May Street-Macadam and the rather Harry-Potter-looking Carter Able-Street-Macadam sometimes called ‘Chasm’ “as that’s his initials.” The Streets have a number of pets: Martin the cat who, on page eight, abandons them to train as a milkman; ten unnamed tortoises, one of whom “fell off the roof, in what can only be described as ‘highly suspicious circumstances’” and an aardvark called Alice whose real name apparently is ‘Orycteropus’ which, we’re told, means ‘aardvark’.

Every now and then a word or a phrase is highlighted in the text. Mostly these are unusual words like ‘refrained’, ‘innovation’, ‘depleted’, ‘smarting’ and ‘profusion’. There’s a reason for this:
In your copy of the book, you will find a bookmark with squillions of fantastic endangered words and a pocket magnifier. Use the magnifier to reveal some cunningly hidden, mind-boggling new words. Coloured text on the page is your clue that a definition is hidden nearby. Be warned: some are harder to find than others!
I didn’t use the magnifier which was enclosed. I used my own and I have to say the print was not simply tiny: it was microscopic. Just a few points bigger wouldn’t have hurt. But it’s a good idea and the definitions are quite well-hidden within the illustrations although not as well as Wally (or Waldo if you’re an American). Of course once you’ve found them once I’m not sure what fun there might be had in looking a second time. Also there was no pocket to keep the magnifier in and I’m pretty sure most kids will lose theirs. It would’ve been a much better idea to ditch the bookmark and simply attach the magnifier to the nice turquoise ribbon.

On the book’s website—always a good idea in this day and age—the author explains why she’s written the book in the way in which she has:
There are somewhere between 150,000 and a quarter of a million words sloshing around in the English language but we routinely get through our day using as few as 7,000 of them.
In the glorious age of the text and the tweet, some 20 percent of our endangered words may be slipping from usage; a sobering statistic for anyone with a love of language that extends beyond the telephone keypad.
Here at Carnaby’s Great Uninvited, we’re calling upon anyone interested in saving some of these dear, wise, elderly and enfeebled words to help us breathe new life into old. Let’s snatch begrumpled from the brink of obscurity, jazz up jargogle and massage poor sick kedge-belly back to life. We want to open our wink-a-peeps and with your help, champion their cause.
It’s commendable but mostly the words she’s chosen to highlight are still staples, at least as far as us adults are concerned, but she does find room to include ‘jargogler’, ‘tar macadam’, ‘ninnyhammer’, ‘kit and caboodle’, ‘brabbler’ and ‘wasabi’ as well as the odd common idiom such as ‘as useful as a chocolate teapot’. Needless to say the text sounds a little awkward at times, a bit contrived:
AmeliaWe called Great Aunt Amelia ‘Gr- AAH’, which began as her names and somehow ended in the exclamation we made as she introduced us to her pet, Josie Shranks [a snake]. Globetrotting companions for almost half a century, they had little good to say of one another. 
[Graah says,] “I don’t much care for her but she has been with me for a very long time.” 
Graah had seen most of the world and had the baggage to prove it. 
We gave her the best room in the house because she’d come all the way from Matabeleland. And we were unaware that she was just the first of many guests to arrive. 
If only there had been some sort of a sign that so many more relatives were on their way. [A drawing of the cat holding a postcard suggests why.] 
Graah’s arrival caused the tortoises to momentarily consider a change in domicile. But the greatest strain was felt by Alice. Who had no fondness for reptiles. And who would have preferred that relatives and their reptilian pets refrained from coming to live with us. 
Being a python, Josie Shranks made Alice zigzag. That’s what aardvarks do when they see a predator – they zigzag.

Why were ‘exclamation’, ‘globetrotting’, ‘Matabeleland’, ‘momentarily’, ‘reptilian’ and ‘zigzag’ not highlighted? Some strange choices here. I particularly wondered about Matabeleland since at the start of the book she chooses to “define” the film Casablanca. That said there’s more about Matabeleland hidden away on the website. I must say I’m not crazy about the use of sentence fragments. Increasing our children’s vocabularies is indeed a commendable thing but I’d rather see us spend the time on grammar and punctuation. Overall I found the tone of narration affected, put on and as likely to put kids off as much as to encourage them. My wife, on the other hand, said she could easily imagine having read the book to one of her grandchildren and keeping their attention even without stopping to explain every word. That said she thought some of the definitions were a tad too British—Carrie, for those who don’t know her, is an American—and it’s only because she’s lived here for as long as she has that she got some of them.

chefAs far as content goes there’s not really much of a story here. Aunt Sylvia and her family arrive followed by Great Aunt Amelia who “seamlessly replaced our regular cook”, as Carnaby puts it. Like we all have cooks that can get so easily replaced. Reminded me of Enid Blyton’s worldview as Amelia cooks a meal made entirely out of different coloured potatoes (one of which manages to look and taste like chicken), shows a slideshow of her travels, has a knitting competition with Carnaby’s mum before heading off to bed with stories still to tell and we’re left—this is the age of the sequel—wondering which relatives will turn up next. Like I said, not much of a story. We are told at the end, however, that this is to be “the first of a series of books that will centre on Carnaby Street and her madcap relatives.”

Now, before you think I’m not overly impressed with this book, what you have to keep in mind is that this is only a part of a much larger endeavour. In addition to this book there are five ebooks entitled As Clear as Mud: The Brabbler’s Guide to Idioms—two volumes exist at the moment—Awfully Nice: The Quester’s Guide to Oxymorons, A is for Anonymuncle: The Brabbler’s Endangered ABC and I Literally Exploded: The Quester’s Guide to Misused Words. Now this is more like it. And obviously there are more books in the pipeline. This is what’s needed. I still think it’s an uphill and pretty pointless struggle—it’s the common man who decides what words stay or go—but if these books only get into the hands of one or two kids like me—and there have to be kids out there for whom language is a source of endless fascination—then it will have been a worthwhile venture.

Children’s books these days are rarely the product of a single author and one of the great pleasures I had when I first met Carrie was being able to wander round Waterstones looking for new and interesting books for her grandchildren since I don’t have any of my own. I’m not sure this one would’ve jumped out at me. Not based purely on the cover and, as I’ve said, the title doesn’t do much for me either. Had I known what was driving the author then I would’ve been more interested, which is why I agreed to review this book.

I love comics. I’m fifty-four years old and I still love comics. I think they’re horrendously expensive for what they are but I find it very hard to venture into Forbidden Planet and not come out with armfuls. What I love about them is the art. Sometimes the stories are good—the X-Men ‘Days of Future Past’ storyline or frankly any of the Sandman arcs—but many are forgettable. What saves some—Todd McFarlane’s run on Spider-Man is a good example—is the artwork. McFarlane is an okay writer but he’s an astounding artist. It’s rare to get someone who can write and draw and few writers of children’s book can do both well; Maurice Sendak is the only one that jumps to mind but I’m sure I’ll think of others in a few minutes.

Mark ReeveNow back to the illustrator, Mark Reeve. From his agency’s website [a few illustrations are available here too]:
Mark has been a commercial artist for twenty years. 
His first drawing was of a red elephant aged 5 and an intensive study of Marvel and DC Comics ensued, and Art college beckoned. First he attended Great Yarmouth College of Art and, in his own words, ‘achieved the rare distinction of failing the course and obtaining a confidential report so bad no other place would touch him’. Eventually however, he got his degree in Graphics at Kingston Art College and he has since produced a plethora of work, his folio comprising everything from DC comics, book covers, storyboards and film visuals, animation, political cartoons (he was political cartoonist on the Mail On Sunday for three and a half years and was awarded the Gillray Cup by The Political Cartoon Society 2004), sculpting and drawing the heads for Spitting Image and more recently, designing some sixty characters for ITV1′s satirical animated show Headcases (2008).
His comic book art’s not on a par with Bernie Wrightson or Joe Kubert or anything but there are nods. It’s obvious the man knows how to draw. But can he draw for kids? [NB: I do distinguish between comic book art and book illustration; they are far from being the same thing.] He does okay actually. What I especially liked was his careful use of colour. None of the illustrations are entirely in colour and so draw your eye to the important bits—exactly like highlighting in text. And there’s a mix of martinstyle—some are comic-booky (I’m think more Beano and Dandy comics here) whereas others (the father in particular) veer towards caricatures of real people (one of the many things Reeve does for a living—see here). The artwork here isn’t lush like the likes of Anthony BrowneVoices in the Park­ was one of the books I remember buying for one of Carrie’s grandkids—it veers more towards the cartoony style of Quentin Blake and there’s definitely a touch of Ronald Searle in the little girl and a bit of Charles Addams in their cat—it’s the eyes—or maybe Edward Gorey. There’s a lot on most of the pages to keep a kid’s interest over repeated viewings and, as I indicated above, the storytelling is not restricted to the words which is good because it feels more like a collaborative venture that way.

I’m not sure as a boy I would’ve enjoyed this book though. It feels a little girly. There are boys in it doing boys things—the cat is most definitely a Tom—but the knitting and the cooking stuff wasn’t really very exciting and there’s really no story at all surrounding the first set of guests, Alice and her family. Why didn’t Carter and Oxford go off and get into trouble? Then again why didn’t Florence and Carnaby do stuff together? They arrived, there was a wee bit of talk about names and that but the book really didn’t get going until Graah arrives to disrupt their lives, only unlike the Cat in the Hat or the tiger who came to tea, she’s not especially disruptive.

My biggest problem with the book is all to do with age. I’m really not sure what age range it’s aimed at. The language involved would need an older child to get to grips with it but he or she might feel they’re a bit old for a storybook. Then again I personally can’t imagine sitting a reading this to a child at the end of the day. There’s simply not enough meat to the words. So it’s a tough call. All parents know their own kids so they’d be best placed to decide what their children might appreciate. I had a look at some kenreading evaluation tests online and I reckon you’d need to be about eight or nine to cope comfortably with the level of comprehension needed here.

The next book in the series will be Great Aunt Maud – A Leech Jar Named Desire, to be followed by Grandfather Frederick — A Fish Called Brenda and Cousin Angel – Mimi La Minque. More details here.

The recommended retail price of the book is £10.95 but, of course, you’ll be able to pick it up for less than that. Amazon has it for £9.39 as I write this and for a hardbacked book I don’t think that’s too bad an investment.


Gwil W said...

Interesting to think about words coming and going and even coming back. Here in Austria there's a furniture side of the motorway style outlet called XXXLutz which has a huge red chair as the logo, but no it's not huge, that's the wrong word, it's gigantic and that's the right word for one visualizes that only a giant Jack and the Beanstalk proportions could ever sit on it and have his feet reach the ground. I presume they sell extra big and extra strong furniture suitable for persons of extra large dimensions. But I've never been in there to see. I just imagine it so.

Jim Murdoch said...

I found a wee video for the store, Gwilliam. They seem to do a lot more than furniture. But I get your point about the subtle difference between ‘huge’ and ‘gigantic’. But what about ‘ginormous’? Wouldn’t that be better still? One of the things I do when I’m editing is spend a long time looking for synonyms particularly because, like most people I expect, I have a terrible habit of using the same words over and over again. My two weaknesses are ‘interesting’ and ‘nice’ and, of course, some things are both ‘nice’ and ‘interesting’.

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