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4 posts from December 2017

21 December 2017

John Pilger: Why the documentary must not be allowed to die

Last month, we announced the acquisition of a digital archive of John Pilger’s published work. This archive covers John Pilger’s career, bringing together some 60 films, 90 radio broadcasts and more than 1,400 articles written for newspapers and current affairs magazines. The collection reflects the interests that have influenced John Pilger’s career, including international affairs, the operation of power and giving voice to ordinary people. Bringing these materials together in one place, in digital form, creates huge potential for research and highlights the significance of independent investigative journalism of the highest quality. John Pilger has twice been named Journalist of the Year by the British Journalism Awards, and his films have won BAFTA awards in the UK and Emmy awards in the US. On Saturday and Sunday 9- 10 December, the British Library held a documentary festival to celebrate the acquisition of this archive, and also to feature other documentaries chosen by John Pilger as fine examples of the documentary craft. On Saturday, John gave a talk on ‘The Power of the Documentary’. An edited version of this address follows below, with kind permission of John Pilger.

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Why the documentary must not be allowed to die

by John Pilger

I first understood the power of the documentary during the editing of my first film, The Quiet Mutiny. In the commentary, I make reference to a chicken, which my crew and I encountered while on patrol with American soldiers in Vietnam.

“It must be a Vietcong chicken – a communist chicken,” said the sergeant. He wrote in his report: “enemy sighted”.

The chicken moment seemed to underline the farce of the war – so I included it in the film. That may have been unwise. The regulator of commercial television in Britain – then the Independent Television Authority or ITA – had demanded to see my script. What was my source for the political affiliation of the chicken? I was asked. Was it really a communist chicken, or could it have been a pro-American chicken?

Of course, this nonsense had a serious purpose; when The Quiet Mutiny was broadcast by ITV in 1970, the US ambassador to Britain, Walter Annenberg, a personal friend of President Richard Nixon, complained to the ITA. He complained not about the chicken but about the whole film. “I intend to inform the White House,” the ambassador wrote. Gosh.

The Quiet Mutiny had revealed that the US army in Vietnam was tearing itself apart. There was open rebellion:  drafted men were refusing orders and shooting their officers in the back or “fragging” them with grenades as they slept.

None of this had been news. What it meant was that the war was lost; and the messenger was not appreciated.

The Director-General of the ITA was Sir Robert Fraser. He summoned Denis Foreman, then Director of Programmes at Granada TV, and went into a state of apoplexy. Spraying expletives, Sir Robert described me as a “dangerous subversive”.

What concerned the regulator and the ambassador was the power of a single documentary film: the power of its facts and witnesses: especially young soldiers speaking the truth and treated sympathetically by the film-maker.

I was a newspaper journalist. I had never made a film before and I was indebted to Charles Denton, a renegade producer from the BBC, who taught me that facts and evidence told straight to the camera and to the audience could indeed be subversive.

This subversion of official lies is the power of documentary. I have now made 60 films and I believe there is nothing like this power in any other medium.

In the 1960s, a brilliant young film-maker, Peter Watkins, made The War Game for the BBC. Watkins reconstructed the aftermath of a nuclear attack on London.

The War Game was banned. “The effect of this film,” said the BBC, “has been judged to be too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting.” The then chairman of the BBC’s Board of Governors was Lord Normanbrook, who had been Secretary to the Cabinet. He wrote to his successor in the Cabinet, Sir Burke Trend: “The War Game is not designed as propaganda: it is intended as a purely factual statement and is based on careful research into official material … but the subject is alarming, and the showing of the film on television might have a significant effect on public attitudes towards the policy of the nuclear deterrent.”

In other words, the power of this documentary was such that it might alert people to the true horrors of nuclear war and cause them to question the very existence of nuclear weapons.

The Cabinet papers show that the BBC secretly colluded with the government to ban Watkins’ film. The cover story was that the BBC had a responsibility to protect “the elderly living alone and people of limited mental intelligence”.

Most of the press swallowed this. The ban on The War Game ended the career of Peter Watkins in British television at the age of 30. This remarkable film-maker left the BBC and Britain, and angrily launched a worldwide campaign against censorship.

Telling the truth, and dissenting from the official truth, can be hazardous for a documentary film-maker.

In 1988, Thames Television broadcast Death on the Rock, a documentary about the war in Northern Ireland.  It was a risky and courageous venture. Censorship of the reporting of the so-called Irish Troubles was rife, and many of us in documentaries were actively discouraged from making films north of the border. If we tried, we were drawn into a quagmire of compliance.

The journalist Liz Curtis calculated that the BBC had banned, doctored or delayed some 50 major TV programmes on Ireland. There were, of course, honourable exceptions, such as John Ware. Roger Bolton, the producer of Death on the Rock, was another. Death on the Rock revealed that the British Government deployed SAS death squads overseas against the IRA, murdering four unarmed people in Gibraltar.

A vicious smear campaign was mounted against the film, led by the government of Margaret Thatcher and the Murdoch press, notably the Sunday Times, edited by Andrew Neil.

It was the only documentary ever subjected to an official inquiry -- and its facts were vindicated. Murdoch had to pay up for the defamation of one of the film’s principal witnesses.

But that wasn’t the end of it. Thames Television, one of the most innovative broadcasters in the world, was eventually stripped of its franchise in the United Kingdom.

Did the prime minister exact her revenge on ITV and the film-makers, as she had done to the miners? We don’t know. What we do know is that the power of this one documentary stood by the truth and, like The War Game, marked a high point in filmed journalism.

I believe great documentaries exude an artistic heresy. They are difficult to categorise. They are not like great fiction. They are not like great feature movies. Yet, they can combine the sheer power of both.

The Battle of Chile: the fight of an unarmed people, is an epic documentary by Patricio Guzman. It is an extraordinary film: actually a trilogy of films. When it was released in the 1970s, the New Yorker asked: “How could a team of five people, some with no previous film experience, working with one Éclair camera, one Nagra sound-recorder, and a package of black and white film, produce a work of this magnitude?”

Guzman’s documentary is about the overthrow of democracy in Chile in 1973 by fascists led by General Pinochet and directed by the CIA. Almost everything is filmed hand-held, on the shoulder. And remember this is a film camera, not video. You have to change the magazine every ten minutes, or the camera stops; and the slightest movement and change of light affects the image.

In the Battle of Chile, there is a scene at the funeral of a naval officer, loyal to President Salvador Allende, who was murdered by those plotting to destroy Allende’s reformist government. The camera moves among the military faces: human totems with their medals and ribbons, their coiffed hair and opaque eyes. The sheer menace of the faces says you are watching the funeral of a whole society: of democracy itself.

There is a price to pay for filming so bravely. The cameraman, Jorge Muller, was arrested and taken to a torture camp, where he “disappeared” until his grave was found many years later. He was 27. I salute his memory.

In Britain, the pioneering work of John Grierson, Denis Mitchell, Norman Swallow, Richard Cawston and other film-makers in the early 20th century crossed the great divide of class and presented another country. They dared put cameras and microphones in front of ordinary Britons and allowed them to talk in their own language.

John Grierson is said by some to have coined the term “documentary”. “The drama is on your doorstep,” he said in the 1920s, “wherever the slums are, wherever there is malnutrition, wherever there is exploitation and cruelty.”

These early British film-makers believed that the documentary should speak from below, not from above: it should be the medium of people, not authority. In other words, it was the blood, sweat and tears of ordinary people that gave us the documentary.

Denis Mitchell was famous for his portraits of a working-class street. “Throughout my career,” he said, “I have been absolutely astonished at the quality of people’s strength and dignity”. When I read those words, I think of the survivors of Grenfell Tower, most of them still waiting to be re-housed, all of them still waiting for justice, as the cameras move on to the repetitive circus of a royal wedding.

The late David Munro and I made Year Zero: the Silent Death of Cambodia in 1979. This film broke a silence about a country subjected to more than a decade of bombing and genocide, and its power involved millions of ordinary men, women and children in the rescue of a society on the other side of the world. Even now, Year Zero puts the lie to the myth that the public doesn’t care, or that those who do care eventually fall victim to something called “compassion fatigue”.

Year Zero was watched by an audience greater than the audience of the current, immensely popular British “reality” programme Bake Off. It was shown on mainstream TV in more than 30 countries, but not in the United States, where PBS rejected it outright, fearful, according to an executive, of the reaction of the new Reagan administration. In Britain and Australia, it was broadcast without advertising – the only time, to my knowledge, this has happened on commercial television.

Following the British broadcast, more than 40 sacks of post arrived at ATV’s offices in Birmingham, 26,000 first-class letters in the first post alone. Remember this was a time before email and Facebook. In the letters was £1 million – most of it in small amounts from those who could least afford to give. “This is for Cambodia,” wrote a bus driver, enclosing his week’s wages. Pensioners sent their pension. A single mother sent her savings of £50. People came to my home with toys and cash, and petitions for Thatcher and poems of indignation for Pol Pot and for his collaborator, President Richard Nixon, whose bombs had accelerated the fanatic’s rise.

For the first time, the BBC supported an ITV film. The Blue Peter programme asked children to “bring and buy” toys at Oxfam shops throughout the country. By Christmas, the children had raised the astonishing amount of £3,500,000. Across the world, Year Zero raised more than $55 million, mostly unsolicited, and which brought help directly to Cambodia: medicines, vaccines and the installation of an entire clothing factory that allowed people to throw away the black uniforms they had been forced to wear by Pol Pot. It was as if the audience had ceased to be onlookers and had become participants.

Something similar happened in the United States when CBS Television broadcast Edward R. Murrow’s film, Harvest of Shame, in 1960. This was the first time that many middle-class Americans glimpsed the scale of poverty in their midst.

Harvest of Shame is the story of migrant agricultural workers who were treated little better than slaves. Today, their struggle has such resonance as migrants and refugees fight for work and safety in foreign places. What seems extraordinary is that the children and grandchildren of some of the people in this film will be bearing the brunt of the abuse and strictures of President Trump.

In the United States today, there is no equivalent of Edward R. Murrow. His eloquent, unflinching kind of American journalism has been abolished in the so-called mainstream and has taken refuge in the internet.

Britain remains one of the few countries where documentaries are still shown on mainstream television in the hours when most people are still awake. But documentaries that go against the received wisdom are becoming an endangered species, at the very time we need them perhaps more than ever.
 
In survey after survey, when people are asked what they would like more of on television, they say documentaries. I don’t believe they mean a type of current affairs programme that is a platform for politicians and “experts” who affect a specious balance between great power and its victims. 
 
Observational documentaries are popular; but films about airports and motorway police do not make sense of the world. They entertain.
 
David Attenborough’s brilliant programmes on the natural world are making sense of climate change – belatedly.
 
The BBC’s Panorama is making sense of Britain’s secret support of jihadism in Syria – belatedly.
 
But why is Trump setting fire to the Middle East? Why is the West edging closer to war with Russia and China?
 
Mark the words of the narrator in Peter Watkins’ The War Game: “On almost the entire subject of nuclear weapons, there is now practically total silence in the press, and on TV. There is hope in any unresolved or unpredictable situation. But is there real hope to be found in this silence?”

In 2017, that silence has returned.

It is not news that the safeguards on nuclear weapons have been quietly removed and that the United States is now spending $4.6 million per hour on nuclear weapons: that’s $4.6 million every hour, 24 hours a day, every day. Who knows that?

The Coming War on China, which I completed last year, has been broadcast in the UK but not in the United States – where 90 per cent of the population cannot name or locate the capital of North Korea or explain why Trump wants to destroy it. China is next door to North Korea.

According to one “progressive” film distributor in the US, the American people are interested only in what she calls “character-driven” documentaries. This is code for a “look at me” consumerist cult that now consumes and intimidates and exploits so much of our popular culture, while turning away film-makers from a subject as urgent as any in modern times.

"When the truth is replaced by silence,” wrote the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, “the silence is a lie."

Whenever young documentary film-makers ask me how they can “make a difference”, I reply that it is really quite simple. They need to break the silence.

19 December 2017

The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council: a short introduction, sources for research and appeal case metadata.

Over the next few weeks, here on the Social Science blog and on the Digital Scholarship blog, Jonathan Sims and Sarah Middle will discuss work done at the British Library to provide insights into appeal cases heard by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (JCPC).  

To start us off, here is some background about the Judicial Committee (JCPC) itself with signposts to resources to support your research, and a brief consideration of whether metadata describing Privy Council appeal cases and judgments can be exploited more effectively.

The court and its jurisdiction

The Privy Council has long acted as a final court of appeal for an extraordinarily wide range of legal cases including both civil and criminal appeals. Details of the wide jurisdiction, current role and powers of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (JCPC) are set out on its website. Perhaps foremost among these is the Judicial Committee’s role to act as a final appeal court for a number of Commonwealth countries. Hearings are often filmed and made available online.

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Courtroom three at the Supreme Court, London

Today the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (JCPC) shares a home with the Supreme Court at the Middlesex Guildhall in Parliament Square, London, where appeals to the JCPC are typically heard in Courtroom Three. However until early this century JCPC hearings took place in a chamber accessed via an unobtrusive door to the Privy Council offices in Downing Street, opposite the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The Soane Museum’s website includes drawings from Sir John’s designs for these offices (see below, Soane …). However the grandeur evident in drawings and in an 1846 illustration (see below, Sitting …) gave way to more cramped and modest conditions by the time of a 1921 appeal against the judgment of the Lincoln Consistory Court (see below, Archdeacon …).  Depicting an earlier era, Christian Schussele’s mid nineteenth century painting Benjamin Franklin appearing before the Privy Council, depicts a rich and vivid spectacle of the court sitting in 1774 in the Royal Cockpit. (See below, Isaacson.)

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The corner of Downing Street and Whitehall

The origins of the Privy Council’s jurisdiction are introduced on the JCPC website, and background commentary about the Privy Council records at the UK National Archives suggests that the Council's judicial function had become distinguishable from legislative and administrative roles by the sixteenth century. With the creation of the Judicial Committee in 1833 during the Lord Chancellorship of Henry Brougham colonial appeals to the Privy Council were ensured to be heard by professional lawyers, (see below Lobban) and by the start of the twentieth century the JCPC “was the final appellate court over a vast global Empire” of colonies, possessions and self-governing Dominions. (Mohr) A YouTube video embedded on the JCPC website provides a brief and engaging history of the court and its jurisdiction.

Biographical information about Privy Council judges can be found across the British Library collections. Archival collections including the Coleridge Family Papers. (MS 85495-86488), Hardwicke Papers (including five, indexed volumes of “appeal-causes before the Privy Council, 1722-1769”, Add. MS 36,216 - 36,220.), India Office Records and private papers, papers of several Lord Chancellors and Prime Ministers (for example, Robert Peel Add 40181 - 40617 and William Gladstone Add. 44086-44835) offer glimpses into the lives and work of  Privy Council judges, the judicial business of the Privy Council, and sometimes into specific cases. These can be searched on the archives catalogue. Photographs and biographical detail of the first colonial judges appointed to the Judicial Committee including Henry De Villiers (South Africa), Samuel James Way (Australia), Samuel Strong (Canada), and Ameer Ali (India) can be found in British Library’s journal and newspaper collections.

Speaking in 2013 and highlighting the modern internationalism of today’s JCPC, Lord Neuberger drew attention to the long-standing position that, although usually sitting for convenience in Westminster, the JCPC applies the law of the state in question.  The Privy Council has considered law from varied locations and legal traditions including Common Law, acts of the Oireachtas from the Irish Free State, French, Spanish and Romano-Dutch law, Venetian and Sardinian law, customary law from Africa, Ottoman and Chinese law, and Hindu, Islamic and Buddhist law from India. (Haldane p. 154) Research indicates that the huge majority of cases originated in India, with the next highest number attributed to Canada. (See Richardson and below Campbell)

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High Court, Calcutta, now Kolkata. (Photo Stretton, W.G., 1875, British Library Online Gallery)

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Recorder’s Court, Rangoon, now Yangon (Photo Jackson, J. 1868, British Library Online Gallery)

The JCPC has heard appeals from courts closer to London too. These include Admiralty and Prize appeals, cases from ecclesiastical courts, and cases pertaining to issues of congenital or temporary mental ill-health, jurisdictions inherited from the High Court of Delegates in the 1830s. During the twentieth century, the court also heard certain cases concerning patents and copyright, and appeals in disciplinary cases from a small number of professional bodies.

Getting to grips with Privy Council appeals, judgments and printed case papers

A snapshot cross section of the court’s caseload is given in Alex Giles’ blog piece Stories from the Empire: Privy Council Cases 1917-1920 while the cultural and international legal significance of particular cases are vividly brought to life in panels from the 2014 exhibition A Court at the Crossroads of Empire: Stories from the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council through the stories of individual litigants and lawyers.

 A more comprehensive representation of the JCPC case load than the selective coverage distributed throughout numerous law reports can be found in collections of official transcripts of the judgments. Very substantial collections are available online and bound into volumes of case papers. The website of the British and Irish Legal Information Institute BAILII provides easy access to a collection of judgment transcripts digitised from the JCPC’s own collection. More or less equivalent is the collection of judgments bound in with the British Library volumes of JCPC case papers, although some variations in coverage and numbering are evident in comparison with the BAILII set.  

In turn, the case papers, which sometimes amount to thousands of pages for an individual case, provide far more insight to individual cases and the operation of justice than the judgments are capable of offering. Largely made up of records of proceedings reprinted and authenticated from those in the originating courts and distributed for the purposes of the Privy Council appeal hearings, they provide rare opportunities to examine historical law in action in courts around the world. As Weait says of transcripts of criminal trials and their value for teaching law, (see below) the case papers reflect the vibrant dispute, and dialogue of proceedings providing opportunity to take a “critically reflective stance” on the “distillation, reduction and abstraction” of process that is provided in “monologue” appellate judgments.

However, as studies of legal case files also suggest, the printed records of proceedings also offer material traces of how law absorbs and constructs the wider social world through authenticated documentary and sworn evidence. It was the level of detail in spatial representations demanded of documentary evidence that one researcher valued. The information was simply unavailable elsewhere. Valued too was the archive of nuanced language and insight on private devotional practices that offered a reflection of a less homogenous, cultural identity than had commonly circulated in contemporary political narrative.  Further insights afforded by the case papers are illustrated in another of Giles’ blog pieces and in summaries of talks by legal historians at a symposium held at the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies.

The few accessible and comprehensive sets of these internationally significant papers are all located in Britain, distributed to archival collections following the disposal of the appeals.  This includes of course the British Library set. (Please note that printed cases and records of proceedings for selected cases beyond the scope of this set can also be found among the Hardwicke papers and India Office Records at the British Library.)  A catalogue entry on the National Archives website helpfully places another set of the printed case papers in context of the wider collections of Privy Council records, although it does not currently facilitate access to the individual cases. Fortunately, free online access to a subset of the case papers is provided by BAILII (British and Irish Legal Information Institute). Case papers for a small selection of appeals are also provided on Exeter University website Privy Council Papers.  

Elsewhere online resources have focused on cases from specific geographical areas and historical periods. These include the Ames Foundation’s Annotated Digital Catalogue of Colonial Appeals (see below, O’Connor and Bilder) whose principal project provides digital images of printed cases in appeals from the American colonies prior to independence, and draws extensive metadata for each case from Privy Council records including the Acts of the Privy Council of England (Colonial Series) and the original Privy Council Registers  and the relevant parts of the PC 1 series (see below, Privy …). Another example is that provided by Macquarie University, which provides detailed information about pre-1850 Australian cases. Additionally, the Anglo-Indian Legal History site by Mitch Fraas contains data about the first 50 appeals from India (1679-1774).

For the final part of today’s blog we look at the how the metadata that describes the nineteenth and twentieth century judgments underpins some of the online services described above, how it facilitates discovery of and access to these resources, and how it might be further exploited.

Exploiting the appeal case metadata for collection discovery and research

The relevant section of BAILII (British and Irish Legal Information Institute) allows the user to search the text of the JCPC judgments, browse the judgments by year and view digitised versions of case documents, where available (see Whittle’s article for more information). Access to the BAILII documents is additionally provided by the LawCite search interface from AustLII, the Australasian Legal Information Institute. Many of the BAILII cases can also be explored and accessed based on the geographical location of the originating courts and the year of the JCPC judgment via a resource provided by IALS (Institute of Advanced Legal Studies), as well as via the University of Exeter’s Privy Council Papers resource.

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IALS visualises selected JCPC cases based on their geographical location and judgment year

The brief details describing each appeal case, its judgments and case papers (the metadata) in several of the above online resources is based on information used to identify and manage collections of judgments and case papers formerly housed at the Privy Council Office in Downing Street. Initially in Microsoft Word documents, these were donated to several institutions including the British Library.

In a single document E.C. Stretton recorded the contents of 137 volumes entitled Printed Cases in Indian and Colonial Appeals (now part of the series PCAP 6 covering cases heard between 1792 and 1878 in the catalogue of the UK National Archives). In addition to the origin of the appeal and details of the parties and documents included for each case in a particular volume, the Stretton metadata also includes, in some cases, information about the outcome of the appeal and the names of presiding Privy Council judges.  Much of this information is now searchable in the catalogue of Exeter University’s Privy Council Papers resource.

Additional annual documents that acted as an index to cases decided between 1860 and 1998, providing basic data in a tabular structure, also underpins some of these online resources. While acting as a helpful finding aid used to identify the year and judgment number of a given case the detail and structure of this data made it immediately obvious that the information could be used to ask questions about the whole body of cases.

With such a huge body of cases to negotiate, stretching over so many years, would an approach that offers some perspective on the case load as a whole be valuable?  Giles suggests that there were around 140 cases per year between 1917 and 1920 - we have seen their wide geographical and cultural scope - and behind each case lies a rich and extensive source in the case papers.

At the British Library this tabular metadata was converted to a spreadsheet that forms the basis for data visualisation experiments that will be outlined in future blog posts.  Drawing inspiration from digital humanities projects we wondered how this structured data could be exploited to ask questions about the JCPC case load as a whole or to facilitate discovery and retrieval of judgments and case papers relevant to particular research interests. Could the data facilitate easier understanding of the geographic distribution of the origins of the appeals, or demonstrate how this distribution was structured by year? Could it help to investigate typical duration of cases (from appeal year to judgment year) and explore relationships between duration and the distance of the originating court from Westminster? Could we determine which appellants or respondents occurred most frequently in the dataset? What other connections and relationships could be discovered to facilitate research or help with identification of relevant appeals and case papers for further investigation?

This is the first in a series of posts about a project to make information about JCPC appeal cases easier to discover. Later posts on the Digital Scholarship blog will look at ways of visualising the information about them:

Many of the resources discussed above are signposted in a collection guide on the British Library website: Judicial Committee of the Privy Council appeal cases.

Further Reading

Some of the resources listed below contain links to online subscription websites. If you or you institution do not have a subscription to these websites they can be accessed in the British Library reading rooms.

The image also can be seen on Leslie Katz’ blog 

  • Soane Museum: collections online: drawings https://collections.soane.org/drawings : architectural & other: office of works : London, Board of Trade and Privy Council Offices, Whitehall & Downing Street: designs for new offices and scheme for the improvement of Downing Street, 1823-33 (284 catalogued drawings)
  • Weait, M (2012) Criminal Law: Thinking about Criminal Law from a Trial Perspective, p163, in Hunter, C Integrating Socio-Legal Studies into the Law Curriculum (Palgrave Macmillan)

18 December 2017

BL Sports Word of the Year 2017

Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator of Spoken English, writes:

And so this is Christmas … and what have you done? Me? Well, I’ve been compiling examples of interesting English usage in the British sporting press and media for the 4th unofficial British Library Sports Word of the Year (SWOTY 2017). Unlike the various ‘official’ Word of the Year Awards, which collectively reflect how global politics continues to dominate public discourse – Oxford Dictionaries declared youthquake its winner; Collins chose fake news and Merriam-Webster plumped for feminism – this review, like most sports punditry, is completely unscientific and entirely subjective. So, on the day after Mo Farah finally won BBC Sports Personality of the Year and Jess Ennis was rightly recognised with a Lifetime Achievement Award, here are the 10 candidates for SWOTY 2017:

February (Ed Leigh of Sweden’s Sven Thorgren’s final jump at Air & Style Innsbruck 2017, BBC Ski Sunday): cab twelve sixty double shifty rewind roast beef

April (Peter Allis of Rory McIlroy’s bunker shot at 7th hole at 2017 Masters, BBC2 Masters Day 3): that could’ve been a Lucy Locketseptic tank

June (Geoff Lemon of Australian batsman Adam Voges impressive Test batting average, Guardian Sport): Voges has immovably rolled out a banana lounge on the Test average list next to Bradman

August (Paul McInnes of interval between second and final session when Edgbaston staged first ever day-night Test in England, Guardian Sport) rather than bemoan the creation of an entirely new meal break, coined ‘trunch’ by my colleague Andy Bull, the Edgbaston crowd were bang into it

August (Guardian Sport ‘in brief’ review of 2017 Netball Quad Series) The Roses overturned a 13-point deficit in the first quarter to secure only their fifth win in 88 matches against the Silver Ferns

September (Sloane Stephens on her near flawless 2017 US Open Final victory, Guardian Sport) I made six unforced errors in the whole match? Shut the front door

April (Paul Rees speculating on coach Warren Gatland’s tactical approach during Lions tour to New Zealand, Guardian Sport) Warrenball did for Australia four years ago but it will be the third generation version this summer

December (Ali Martin of England batsman James Vince’s batting technique, Guardian Sport) Nick city’ was how the likeable Kerry O’Keefe described the right-hander’s open bat face in his first innings just seconds before Josh Hazlewood exploited this exact glitch via a tame punch to a ball

December (Ali Martin of England debutant Craig Overton’s batting prospects in First Ashes Test, Guardian Sport): Overton, fresh from three ducks in the warm-ups, was on for the dreaded ‘Audi

December (Sean Dyche of Burnley briefly moving into Premier League top 4 following victory against Stoke City, Sky Sports News): I’m very proud I’m super proud prouder than the proudest man in Proudsville

As in previous years the list is drawn from several sports that make an annual appearance – one each for golf, tennis, rugby union, football and netball and four for cricket – while this year sees one newcomer in freestyle snowboarding. It’s difficult to say whether the monopoly of certain sports is entirely down to my own reading preferences and sporting interests or more a reflection of the relative column inches/broadcast airtime afforded each sport. Certainly, in a year in which England’s women won a thrilling World Cup and both our men and women have contested (less thrillingly) the Ashes, it’s perhaps not surprising that cricket is particularly well represented.

Linguistically the list can be categorised in a number of ways. Two entries are examples of sporting jargon – words or expressions used by a profession or interest group that can be difficult for others to understand. Perhaps the most impenetrable sequence of words here is the wonderful cab twelve sixty double shifty rewind roast beef which I’m reliably informed describes a particularly impressive jump manoeuvre in which a snowboarder performs a 720º rotation with their hands between their legs on the opposite edge of the board before slowing down, over-rotating back and rotating another 360º before landing. I think. This list of snowboard tricks might help. Warrenball, on the other hand, refers to a style of attritional rugby based around attempting to break the opposition midfield defence with a series of ‘crash ball’ runners. The term, associated with the Wales coach Warren Gatland, is linguistically intriguing as it’s formed by adding the suffix –ball to Gatland’s first name, thus referencing Moneyball, a methodology employed by Oakland Athletics baseball team general manager, Billy Beane. The principle of Moneyball was to create a successful baseball team by prioritising statistical analysis and empirical evidence over collective coaching wisdom and ‘instinct’. Both Moneyball and Warrenball, despite achieving consistent success, are often viewed negatively as somehow more dispassionate and sterile compared with other approaches perceived to be more imaginative or inventive, which is perhaps why Gatland himself distances himself from the term.

Three entries are intriguing as I suspect they started out life as nonce-words – i.e. a word coined for use on one specific occasion. Two are used in reference to cricket and might subsequently have been adopted more widely, but to my knowledge remain pretty low-frequency. The first, Audi [= four consecutive scores of nought] is a visual reference to the brand logo of the car manufacturer – four interlocking (i.e. consecutive) letters ‘O’ or zeroes. This visual association mirrors the use of bagel to refer to a score of ‘love’ (i.e. zero) in tennis, which was a nominee for SWOTY 2014. The second is trunch, a blend of ‘lunch’ and ‘tea break’ – the ‘traditional’ timings of intervals in Test match cricket – to represent the somewhat later timing of the interval during the floodlit evening session of a day-night Test. Lucy locket and septic tank are examples of rhyming slang for ‘socket’ and ‘shank’ respectively, both of which are in turn golfing jargon for the point where a club head meets the shaft and a mishit shot in which (for a right-handed player) the ball squirts out diagonally to the right of the intended target. This online Cockney Rhyming Slang website suggests Lucy Locket and septic tank are indeed established rhyming slang forms, but for ‘pocket’ and ‘Yank’ (i.e. American). The fact the word shank is disguised by the commentator in this way not only shows our great affection for the creative possibilities of rhyming slang, but would also be immediately understood by golfers as (rather like mentioning Macbeth to an actor about to appear in The Scottish Play) there is a well-known superstition among golfers that uttering the word shank will instantly result in succumbing to the shot oneself.

One entry this year captures the proliferation of nicknames in sporting nomenclature. In most cases this is part and parcel of the team itself – United or Wednesday enables us to distinguish between Sheffield United and Sheffield Wednesday, for instance. Many US team sports are characterised by teams that bear a franchise name – the Rams have played variously in Cleveland, Los Angeles, St Louis and are now based back in Los Angeles. This often mystifies British sports fans, although we can no longer claim it’s a uniquely American phenomenon – consider the Rugby Union team Wasps who in the days of amateur Rugby Union were based in Sudbury, but shortly after the advent of professionalism relocated to High Wycombe and, more recently, Coventry. In many cases, teams have an additional nickname such as the Blades [= Sheffield United] and, especially in international sport, teams are increasingly likely (possibly for commercial reasons?) to be referred to by their nickname alone. The Roses [= England Netball] and Silver Ferns [= New Zealand Netball], here, are two examples of several I’ve found in the Guardian alone, including the following five that I suspect might prove difficult quiz questions for many: Djurtus [= Guinee-Bissau football (male)]; Brave Blossoms [= Japan Rugby Union (male)]; Black Ferns [New Zealand Rugby Union (female)]; Spar Proteas [= South Africa netball (female)]; and Kumuls [= Papua New Guinea Rugby League (male)]

The other four items fall loosely into the category of slang. They’re certainly not exclusive to sport, but are interesting because they demonstrate how vernacular and colloquial expressions permeate even mainstream print and media coverage of sport. The term banana lounge is Australian slang for a ‘sun-lounger/reclining deck chair’, while shut the front door is a US English exclamation expressing surprise or disbelief. The final two are also originally US slang phrases, but in this case used by an English football manager and a former Australian cricketer. The use of –ville as a terminal element to refer to a fictitious place associated with a particular quality, is dated to 1863 by the OED; the analogous use of City is listed from 1946. The fact a Burnley football manager, Sean Dyche, chooses to express his pride by reference to Proudsville and Australian commentator, Kerry O’Keefe describes James Vince’s tendency to be dismissed caught behind as Nick city are testament to how – like rhyming slang – such idiomatic expressions are so endlessly productive and entertaining.

Many of the terms above are documented in authoritative dictionaries in the British Library's collections, but some are yet to appear in print reference works, so their presence in our newspaper collections and web archives is an invaluable resource for language scholars monitoring the continued evolution of English. And as for this year’s winner – much though I’m tempted by cab twelve sixty double shifty rewind roast beef I don’t think I really understand it even now, so I’m going to plump for shut the front door, simply because I had to ask my seventeen-year-old daughter what Sloane Stephens meant.

17 December 2017

21st Century British Comics

Wilma-for-web
Wilma, Ashling Larkin, Ink Pot Studio, University of Dundee

Hello! My name’s Olivia Hicks and I am the latest in the long line of British Library PhD Placements – this time based in the Contemporary British Collections Department and looking at 21st Century British Comics.

The placement follows the logic that the vast majority of comics produced in the Britain are not available at newsagents – the traditional place of comics retail – in fact, it’s unclear how many of them are even available in specialist comics shops. Thus traditional methods of examining a country’s comics culture (namely looking at the readily available published material), are slightly defunct. Therefore, to get a full understanding of British comics in the new millennium, it is important to examine not only the comics output of DC Thomson and 2000AD but also small press comics and independent creators. These alternative comics are currently blossoming in Britain; but what are they about, who’s making them, who are they for, where are they being made and where can they be found? 

Being let loose in the largest scholarly sandbox in Britain is an exercise is discipline and restraint. It is a fine line between ambitiously aiming to make the very most of this exceptional opportunity, and bearing in mind that it is only three months (and it has to be useful). It is easy, in such circumstances, to get lost.

In order to combat this, I drafted a research proposal before coming to the Library, identifying the kind of questions and themes that seemed to me particularly pertinent. Then, throughout the first few weeks (has it been four weeks already? Nooooo), I began, in cooperation with the Library, to identify outputs. Some of these outputs had already been identified and agreed upon beforehand (in our case a report and a comic), but others made themselves apparent as I began the placement. 

 The first, and most important output, is of course the report, where I will attempt to answer some of the questions asked in the second paragraph. The questions are a good mix between those that the Contemporary British Collections Department are particularly interested in, and those which will feed back nicely into my PhD (namely, as a girls comics scholar, it is helpful to understand how women are represented, and how girls are currently catered to). 

The second output will be two comics; one will aim to summarise the findings of the report into an easily accessible format for members of the public. The second comic will be for comics creators, explaining how their work falls under the legal deposit scheme. In this way we hope to rectify what is one of the biggest hurdles for studying 21st century British comics and preserving them for future generations – getting small press and independent comics into the Library’s collection.
This is a brief summary of the work I hope to carry out over the next two months. If you have any comments or queries, or simply want to talk more about comics (especially girls’ comics or superhero comics!), please get in touch at olivia.hicks@bl.uk.

See also: Earlier this year, Jen Aggleton explored digital comics publishing in the UK. You can find more details of this project in blog posts on digital comics in the UK and creating a web archive collection of digital comics.