Sound and vision blog

17 posts from April 2018

13 April 2018

T.M. Johnstone’s Modern South Arabian recordings: collaborative cataloguing and ‘footprints’ of biocultural change in Southern Arabia

Audio cataloguer Dr Alice Rudge writes:

Thomas Muir Johnstone made many recordings during his research trips to the Middle East in the 1960s and 1970s, some of which are of endangered and unwritten languages. The British Library now houses these open reel and cassette tapes, which were acquired from Durham University Library in 1995. The collection is archived within the World and Traditional Music collection with the reference C733. As part of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, these tapes have now been digitised and are being catalogued. The cataloguing of the tapes in this collection containing Modern South Arabian languages was made possible through a collaborative process, which revealed not only the content of the tapes, but also the webs of intertwining stories and lives that they document. 

Abdul Qadr
T.M. Johstone sits with Abdul Qadr, the head of education in Dhofar at the time. He admired Johnstone for his beautiful Arabic handwriting (Morris p.c.). Image used with the kind permission of Durham University Library.

Johnstone had a talent for languages from an early age, learning to speak Polish as a schoolboy, before settling on Arabic (in particular the Gulf dialects) as the language to which he would devote much of his career. However, his work was also invaluable for the documentation and description of Modern South Arabian languages, in particular Mehri, Shehret and Harsusi. He often worked long-term with particular speakers such as ‘Ali Musallam, who in fact spent many months living in London so that Johnstone could continue to work with him. In 1967, Johnstone was also part of a joint civilian and army expedition to the island of Soqotra. Johnstone was the group’s linguist, and accompanying him were also archaeologists, geologists, and botanists (the trip is documented in Doe 1992).  

Map
Map showing the distribution of Modern South Arabian languages in Yemen and Oman. Cartography by Ulrich Seeger. Used with kind permission from the documentation and ethnolinguistic analysis of Modern South Arabian team.

The Modern South Arabian languages Harsusi, Mehri, Shehret, Hobyot, Bathari, and Soqotri are distinct from Arabic. They are spoken in Yemen (including the island of Soqotra) and Oman, as well as elsewhere in the Gulf. Whereas Arabic is from the Northern branch of the Afro-asiatic language family, Modern South Arabian languages are from the Southern branch. Each of these languages are endangered, and are undergoing rapid change in response to urbanisation and the ever-increasing use of the dominant contact language, Arabic, in younger generations. This process of language loss was already happening during Johnstone’s fieldwork, and is continuing now. Modern South Arabian languages are also purely oral languages, with no formal script, making the sound archive’s preservation of these recordings vital for documenting the languages as they were spoken by individuals at that moment in time. As they are unwritten languages, recordings are the only documents.

When beginning to catalogue the recordings containing Modern South Arabian languages, the language barrier impeded us from making them accessible, as to us the content was often unidentifiable. In order to give due care and attention to the cataloguing of this significant and at-risk collection of recordings, we were therefore fortunate to be able to call on the expertise of Prof. Janet Watson, Abdullah Musallam al-Mahri, and Dr Miranda Morris.

Prof. Janet Watson is Leadership Chair for Language at Leeds University. She works on the documentation of Modern South Arabian languages, alongside Arabic dialectology, phonology, and morphology. She is also a fellow of the British Academy. Abdullah Musallam al-Mahri is a speaker of Mehri, and also understands Harsusi and Shehret. Based in Oman, he collaborates closely with Janet, and has co-published papers with her. Dr Miranda Morris, St Andrews University, has been doing extensive fieldwork in Southern Arabia (including Soqotra) for many years, and has researched and published comprehensively on oral literature and on the ethnobotany of the area. She also worked closely with Johnstone in the past, as he was the supervisor for her PhD at SOAS. They all collaborate on the Leverhulme Trust-funded Modern South Arabian languages project, a three-year community-based project which aims to document the Modern South Arabian languages spoken in Yemen and Oman.

Not only were Janet, Abdullah and Miranda able to contribute their expertise towards our cataloguing work, providing us with information on the languages used in the recordings, the content of the recordings, and in some cases the names of the speakers, they were also able to illuminate a profound sense of the time and place in which the recordings were made through their extensive background knowledge – and to situate this within the current context of rapid language and environmental change in the area.

Indeed, environmental and language loss tend to go hand in hand – with the most linguistically diverse parts of the world tending to also be the most ecologically diverse. When the landscape changes, the language we have to describe it also disappears. The Modern South Arabian languages which Janet, Abdullah, and Miranda speak and work on are rich in evocative metaphors and similies that are connected to the particular landscape of the area. For example, if a man is described as axahēh sīmar ‘he looks like a mar tree’, he is compared to the Boscial Arabica tree, a tree of the desert and drier mountains that looks like an ‘opened umbrella’. In other words, he is characterised by his ‘height, uprightness, slenderness and a shock of hair’ (Morris, p.c., Watson & al-Mahri 2017:95).

In some cases, particular words used to describe the environment are ‘grammaticalised’ – changing from having a meaning as words on their own, to also taking on a grammatical function. For example, in Mehri, the word śaff (śɛf in Shehret) means ‘animal track’, or ‘footprint’. This word, however, has also been historically grammaticalised – and is now used as the particle śaf, having the sense of ‘it transpired’, ‘as it happened’, ‘really’ (Watson & al-Mahri 2017:95). This particle is a kind of metaphorical extension of the noun śaff (‘footprint, animal track’) that now resonates beyond its original, literal meaning, to encode a sense of surprise, or revelation, that something has turned out to be as it has - just like an animal’s footprints reveal an indisputable trace of what or who has passed by. As Janet and Abdullah put it ‘from sight someone might believe that they are following a camel from one herd, but on close examination of tracks [śaff] discover they are tracking a camel from a different herd’ (Watson & al-Mahri 2017:95). Just like tracks reveal someone or something’s true identity or nature, therefore, the particle śaf describes this sense of revelation and surprise that transpires from new information or evidence.

Camel track
A photo of a camel track, taken by Abdullah Musallam al-Mahri, and used with kind permission.

 

Camels
A photo taken by Johnstone of camels in the Negd. They are desert camels, so they have thin delicate legs, unlike mountain camels who have thicker legs and more splayed feet (Morris p.c.). Image used with the kind permission of Durham University Library.

This experience of ‘revelation’ was reflected in our own process of cataloguing the collection – where tapes that we thought to be one thing turned out to be another, as their true identity was unlocked and thus revealed by Janet, Abdullah, and Miranda. Some of the tapes were unlabelled, others had been placed in the wrong boxes. Our collaborative work was thus fundamental to ensure these sound recordings are preserved for the future with meaning, not catalogued as ‘unidentified’ or ‘unnamed’ and consequently remaining almost invisible in the Library’s catalogue.

One recording was found by Abdullah and Miranda to be of someone speaking in Hobyot – a language we weren’t previously aware was represented in the collection, but are now able to catalogue accordingly. Another recording in Harsusi was rich in ethnobotanical detail. However, as well as doing the essential work of identifying things like language, speakers, and content, Janet, Miranda, and Abdullah were able to unlock something of the time and place that the recordings were made, and in fact, a common theme of some of the stories in the collection was this very experience of revelation, of something turning out to be something else.

Below are three Soqotri stories, translated and interpreted by Dr Miranda Morris:

[C733/8] ‘Story of two thieves’. The two thieves want to learn about thieving from each other. One has a ‘sword’, the other has some ‘honey’. They each don’t know what the other is doing. The thief with the sword offers for the other to buy it, but the other says he doesn’t have money, only honey. They exchange items – only for the man who thought he would receive a fine sword to find it was only a date palm frond, and the man who was given the honey to find he had been given sticks of excrement. They both laughed and said ‘we’re as bad as each other’.

[C733/3] ‘Story of the fisherman from Momi’. The fisherman is looked after by a lady vulture. He feeds her fish and she looks after the house. He goes out and meets some people who ask him to come out with them – he says he can’t because of his ‘old lady’ back home. They say OK – we’ll come to you. He lights a fire and cooks fish for them. He ends up travelling with them for 2 weeks, and gets lost in a foreign country. He finds another boat, lands in another country, and has to live by begging. A man offers him to come and look after his goats, even though he says he doesn’t know anything about goats. He tells him to look after the camels and date palms – but he doesn’t know how to do that either. Finally he says it doesn’t matter, I’ll look after you and give you clothes and food until you die. That night the fisherman dreamed of home and his old life. A witch appears to him in his sleep, and tells him to go to where the sharks are feeding at dusk - you’ll see the sharks with their mouths open waiting to feed. She tells him to cover his face and wade amongst them. He finds the sharks, does as she says, and in the morning finds himself in his own country… In his house, he finds a woman instead of the vulture…

[C733/1] ‘Story of the man and the jiniyya’. A man left Momi [on the Eastern tip of Soqotra]. He is going to see the Sultan in Hadiboh [the capital]. He goes to the home of the representative of the Sultan. He goes to Kam – where the Sultan’s palace is. He meets him at a famous Christ thorn tree called Gidehem. On the way, a woman he meets seems to know him [this is very common of jiniyya] – they go on together, they lie down to sleep – she says how will we cover ourselves – they use his waist cloth. Underneath, he is naked except for his knives. He says ‘come a bit closer’. He sees her ‘tifr’ [this is the one long fingernail which marks out someone as a jiniyya]. Then he knew that she was a jiniyya. He says ‘go away! I know you!’. He grabs his knives and stick and sleeps elsewhere and then runs away. She chased him all the way home to a house that wasn’t his, where he wakes up a sleeping man. He couldn’t explain himself as he was too stunned. The jiniyya says ‘that man has been rude and he will do no good and he will die’. Then he was dead...

Beach
A photo taken by Johnstone of the beach at Duqm, Oman, now a large development (Morris p.c.). Image used with the kind permission of Durham University Library.

In these Soqotri stories, the ‘sword’, the ‘honey’ the ‘vulture’ and the ‘woman’ all undergo a process of 'revelation', and turn out to be something other than was first thought. Here, a date palm frond, sticks of excrement, a human wife, and a jiniyya. Similarly, Miranda also writes that much Soqotri poetry (which the T.M. Johnstone collection also contains) makes use of a poetic device she translates as 'veiled language', from Soqotri di-ḥarf 'concealed', and di-xīlīyə 'placed beneath'. This is where the true intention of the poet is 'intelligble only to people of superior wit and insight' or to those who 'share some secret knowledge with the poet' (Morris 2013:239). A further parallel, therefore, with the 'revealing' of information in the stories, where things also transpired to be something other than was first thought.

As well as being able to describe the content of the stories to us, Miranda was able to provide us with great detail about the context of the stories and the speakers. The jiniyya was ‘revealed’ as not what the man thought, but also ‘revealed’ was the history of the place Gidehem, mentioned in the story. Miranda told of how the place is named after the famous tree of the same name. Thieves’ hands would be hung in this tree after they had been cut off as a punishment for thieving. The hands would first be boiled in shark oil, then hung up for all to see. Though this no longer happens, the place is still called Gidehem, after the tree.

In another recording from Soqotra, the speaker talks about mekoli (shamanic healers in Soqotra). He talks about how mekoli can help to ‘wash away’ your sickness, by pointing out which woman has done witchcraft on you. He then describes the process by which an accused women would be tried for being a witch: she would have a millstone tied to her neck and then be thrown overboard from a dugout canoe. If she sank, she was innocent. If she floated, she was a witch and sent on the next boat to Sur (in Oman). Miranda was able to translate the speaker talking about these past practices – and also to share her memories of her Soqotri friends recounting their older relatives talking about how this practice came to be abolished.

Children
A photo taken by Johnstone of children on the beach in Oman. One of the children wears a silver earring, suggesting that his mother may have lost a lot of children. The earring attracts witches away from the child, and so keeps him safe (Morris p.c.). Image used with the kind permission of Durham University Library.

Working with Janet, Abdullah, and Miranda was therefore invaluable for revealing the 'footprints' not only of the content of the recordings, but also the landscape they grew from – the environmental landscape and the cultural landscape that Johnstone and the speakers he recorded were immersed in, alongside other British colonial activities taking place in Aden. Recording and preserving this knowledge accurately is an essential part of the preservation work we are engaged with in the Unlocking our Sound Heritage project. To use Miranda’s words:

‘many of the traditional uses described have undergone modification or have already been lost. One result of recent development on the islands [of Soqotra] is that certain traditions or procedures are now seen as unsuitable or ‘backward’ and at odds with the more conservative views of modern Islam. Other uses and customs are seen as representing a time of desperation and poverty which many would prefer to forget. In this way, the recent rapid changes affecting the islands threaten to obliterate expertise and knowledge that have passed down the generations over hundreds of years’

(Morris & Miller 2004:3)

To return to our footprints metaphor: as Janet and Abdullah describe, many young speakers of Mehri will use the particle śaf in sentences to mean ‘it turned out that’ or 'it was revealed', but are unaware of the link between this word and the social importance of using footprints to track people and animals in the past. This unawareness is likely to be related to the environmental change caused by increasing urbanisation – you don’t use tracks or footprints to discover information when walking on solid asphalt (Ali Ahmad al-Mahri, quoted in Watson & al-Mahri 2017:96).

To help preserve this unique knowledge, therefore, we have been delighted to work with Prof. Janet Watson, Abdullah al-Mahri, and Dr Miranda Morris – and we will further extend this work on the sound recordings of Modern South Arabian languages contained in the the T.M. Johnstone collection by reconnecting them with the speech communities in Soqotra and Oman. This will continue the process of revealing hidden information through the sharing of expertise and knowledge.

Jibjat
Johnstone walks on the plane behind Jibjat in Oman, amongst Chirst thorn trees. This area is now all desert, with no trees (Morris p.c.). Image used with the kind permission of Durham University Library.

Thanks to Professor Janet Watson, Abdullah Musallam al-Mahri and Dr Miranda Morris for their enthusiasm and for adding their insights on the collection. Many thanks also go to curator of World and Traditional music Andrea Zarza Canova, and to members of the Unlocking our Sound Heritage project team, for facilitating the research.

The T.M. Johnstone collection can be found by searching the British Library’s Sound and Moving Image catalogue with collection call number C733

Copies of Johnstone’s published lexicons can also be found at the British Library:

Mehri, 1987 [YC.1987.a.5434]

Shehret [Jibbali], 1981 [X.950.11437]

Harsusi, 1977 [X989.51585]

References:

Doe, B. 1992. Soqotra: island of tranquillity. London: IMMEL Publishing Ltd.

Miller, A.G. & Morris, M.J. 2004. Ethnoflora of the Soqotra Archipelago. Edinburgh: The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.

Morris, M.J. 2013. The use of 'veiled language' in Soqoṭri poetry. Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies 43: pp. 239-244. 

Watson, J.C.E. & al-Mahri, A.M. 2017. Language and Nature in Dhofar. In Linguistic Studies in the Arabian Gulf. Edited by Simone Bettega and Fabio Gasparaini. Turino: Quaderni di RiCOGNIZIONI, pp. 87-103.

Related links:

Alice Rudge talking with Rowan Campbell and Andrew Booth about the project on the Linguistics at the Library podcast

British Academy podcast in which Prof. Janet Watson discusses the relationship between environmental and linguistic diversity

Friends of Soqotra charity

Deposits of Modern South Arabian linguistic materials can be found at the Endangered Languages Archive

Information on the major, international, community-based project that focusses on the documentation and ethnolinguistic analysis of Modern South Arabian languages, and is coordinated by Dr Janet Watson and funded by the Leverhulme Trust  

Unlocking Our Sound Heritage 

World and Traditional Music collection

British Library Sound Archive on NTS Radio

HLF-english_compact_black

Unlocking Our Sound Heritage is a five year project, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, that will digitally preserve some of the most vulnerable sound recordings in the UK and establish the ways for our audio heritage to be shared with a wide range of audiences now and in the future. 

Was this the first rock picture disc?

Colour photo of the 'Hallucinations' picture-disc
Just one month remains in which to visit our free Entrance Hall exhibition Listen: 140 Years of Recorded Sound. The exhibition invites visitors to engage with a wide selection of sounds from the archive, from the (very) late nineteenth century to the present day. Over seven hours of audio material is available in each of our specially-constructed listening 'pods'.

On display we have a number of historical and modern players plus various historically significant or eye-catching media formats, among them a number of number of historical and modern picture records.

When finalizing the exhibits and captions for the exhibition back in autumn 2017, we were confident that Curved Air's Airconditioning album of 1970 was the first modern picture disc. Somewhat embarrassingly however, this turns out not to be correct.

Although the Curved Air album was - as far as we are aware - the first rock picture disc to be issued in the UK, we have since become aware of a rock picture disc issued in Germany that clearly preceded it. 

The awkwardly-titled Off II - Hallucinations (Psychedelic Underground) , issued by Metronome in 1969, was a sampler of various Elektra label acts, most notably the Doors, Love and the MC5. It followed the previous year's Off, which showcased many of the same acts. 

The lavish but unwieldy packaging included an enormous poster, eight times the size of the cover. This was - rather impractically - firmly affixed to the gatefold sleeve. Notes on the contributors were printed on one side, with a nightmarish image of deathly-blue grasping hands - presumably an illustration of the grimmer variety of psychedelic experience -  spread across the other.

Metronome also manufactured the world's first '3-D' picture disc, which was the subject of a previous blog post towards the end of last year.

Whether this will be the the last word on the subject of the first rock picture disc remains to be seen. If you know of any other likely contenders to the title please do drop us a line.

Colour photo of the 'Hallucinations' disc and LP sleeve, side-by-side

Colour photo of 'Hallucinations' inner sleeve booklet, open at an article headed, 'Did You Ever Take a Trip'

Colour photo of the opened-out inner-sleeve booklet, which becomes a poster on one side. The image shows ghostly blue grasping hands, with 'Hallucinations - Did You Ever Take a Trip' in the lower left corner

Detail of 'Hallucinations' poster showing title text

12 April 2018

Classical music in Nairobi

By Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music

20180318_163526Levi Wataka and the Nairobi Orchestra

I recently gave a public lecture at the British Library titled Classic Treasures from the Sound Archive and the following day left for Kenya to repeat it in Nairobi.  I had been invited to become involved in a number of musical activities by Richard and Julia Moss.  As members and organisers of the Nairobi Orchestra, they have been responsible, almost single-handedly, in promoting classical music in Kenya for more than fifty years.  Their efforts were rewarded in 2010 when they both received an MBE ‘for services to classical music in Kenya’ and Richard published a book of recollections - Quavers near the Equator.  Now, many young Kenyans have the opportunity to study music at the Kenya Conservatoire of Music or with private teachers, and can audition for a place in the Nairobi Orchestra.  The Orchestra is non-professional, comprised of amateur musicians who all have day jobs but give their time on Wednesdays and Saturdays for rehearsals.

On my first evening I was invited to attend the Women’s Day Concert where an all-female orchestra were joined by soloists for some vocal extracts including an aria from Shirley Thompson’s operatic trilogy Spirit Songs.  The evening was presented by Wandiri Karimi, Director of the Kenya Conservatoire of Music who, from the stage, was kind enough to thank me for attending.

20180308_193810Celebrating Women in Music concert at Nairobi Theatre

At the first rehearsal I attended of the Nairobi Orchestra I coached them on the background to the main work they were preparing for the second half of their concerts the following week - the Symphony No. 5 by Tchaikovsky.  A complex work demanding orchestral playing of a high standard, I was pleased that the response was very positive.

IMG_0326Coaching the Nairobi Orchestra in Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5

Another invitation was to be a jury member of the Young Music Competition at Kenton College, an annual event directed by Francis Oludhe now in its twenty-second year.  There were some very promising young players of all instruments and the Nairobi School Band gave a rousing performance of a march by Sousa at the end.

20180311_173619Jury: Dan Abissi, Njane Mugambi, Jonathan Summers, Grace Muriithi, Ken Mwiti, Alexandra Stapells, Eugene Muthui

One of the most rewarding experiences I had during my time in Nairobi was a piano accompaniment workshop I gave to seventeen students at All Saints Cathedral.  They wanted to learn more about the art of accompaniment and I was fortunate to have tenor soloist Anthony Mwangi to accompany and demonstrate for the students.  He is an impressive and talented tenor who sang a Brahms song in German and a setting of a John Masefield poem by John Ireland.

20180312_181226Piano accompaniment workshop at All Saints Church

Unfortunately, the rainy season came early and we had three inches of rain in one day resulting in the cancellation of a class I was to give in conducting and composition due to the roads being flooded!

IMG-20180315-WA0000Flooding in Nairobi

I was also fortunate to attend a performance in English of Rossini’s Barber of Seville with piano accompaniment.  Figaro was played by Caleb Wachira, Music Director at the Strathmore School, and most of the cast were very accomplished providing a humorous and enjoyable afternoon.

The Nairobi Orchestra gave their concerts at the Kenya National Theatre on Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon.  The first half of the concert was conducted by James Laight, Director of Music at Peponi School.  Pianist Cordelia Williams came from England to perform Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini by Rachmaninov while the orchestra commenced with the orchestral arrangement of Debussy’s Petite Suite

20180317_193243Cordelia Williams (piano) with the Nairobi Orchestra and James Laight conducting

170318 RachmaninovEDIT

The second half was conducted by Levi Wataka, who received his BMus from Kenyatta University and who is Assistant Director of Music and teacher of sport at Peponi House Preparatory School.  Levi’s passion is conducting and he visits England each year to attend a summer school to further his knowledge and experience.  We had some fascinating discussions together on the work he conducted at the concert – Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 mentioned above.  Both performances were sold out and attracted an appreciative and attentive audience.

In addition to all my musical pursuits, in my capacity as curator I was offered some 78rpm discs by Peter Paterson, a neighbour whose grandparents had emigrated from Germany.  I selected what the Library did not have and brought them back with me including a disc of Massenet from a set of two of which the Library only had the first disc. 

Columbia D 11008

Mr Moss donated some rare late 1940s Kenyan recordings on the Jambo label.  The Library only has ten of these discs which I acquired way back in 2005 from the collection of Ernie Bayly. 

Jambo

For Wildlife curator, Cheryl Tipp I recorded some of the birds including the ibis, robin chat, red chested cuckoo and cisticola although I was unable to secure a recording of the tree hyrax, a sort of giant guinea pig, which often screamed during the night.

All photographs copyright Jonathan Summers

For all the Classical news follow @BL_Classical

09 April 2018

Recording of the week: Steve Reich at the ICA

This week's selection comes from Stephen Cleary, Lead Curator of Literary & Creative Recordings.

Tape-recorder

Anyone who enjoyed BBC Four's recent two-part documentary on American minimalism Tones, Drones and Arpeggios: The Magic of Minimalism might also like this recording of composer Steve Reich discussing his life and work. Reich was joined in conversation at the ICA, London, 28 January 1986, by composer Gavin Bryars and composer/broadcaster Michael Berkeley. 

This recording is taken from a large collection of talks and discussions held at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London between 1982-1993. 

Follow @BL_DramaSound and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

06 April 2018

Linguistics at the Library – Episode 6

PhD placement students, Andrew Booth and Rowan Campbell write:

Are there any words your family use that no one else has heard of? Can you guess what fruckle, woga, elpit and pivoed mean? This week, Andrew and Rowan look into this phenomenon, with lots of examples from visitors who donated to the Evolving English WordBank! In the process, we explain how new words are made and how they might spread, via a (very) brief history of the English language.

Tweet us: @VoicesofEnglish

This week’s ‘What’s the feature?’ used a clip from:

Millennium Memory Bank Recording in Chelmsford, Essex. BBC, UK, rec. 1999 [digital audio file]. British Library, C900/04060. Available: https://sounds.bl.uk/Accents-and-dialects/Millenium-memory-bank/021M-C0900X04060X-0100V1

Interesting links:

Evolving English WordBank: https://sounds.bl.uk/Accents-and-dialects/Evolving-English-WordBank

Back slang: http://www.victorianweb.org/history/slang2.html

Hybrid words: https://stancarey.wordpress.com/2011/11/28/the-monstrous-indecency-of-hybrid-etymology/

How to make up new words: http://www.slate.com/blogs/lexicon_valley/2015/06/19/neologisms_lexicon_valley_guide_to_making_up_words.html

The English Project. 2008. Kitchen Table Lingo. Lonfdon: Virgin http://englishproject.org/activities/kitchen-table-lingo

Linguistics at the Library Episode 6

04 April 2018

The Gender Pay Gap – a historical perspective from Women in Publishing

Sarah O'Reilly, oral history interviewer, writes about the Women in Publishing oral history project which launches its new website today.

Today marks the deadline for employers to publish information on their gender pay gap – that is, the pay disparity between their male and female workers. The government’s aim is to raise awareness and to trigger a debate about how men and women are paid.

Which is it you want - equality or maternity leave by Jacky Fleming cropped

Cartoon by Jacky Fleming (copyright Jacky Fleming)

From the information released so far, we’ve seen that men are better paid across the board. They dominate the upper end of the pay scale and more of them have the best jobs.

Since The Equal Pay Act of 1970 it’s been illegal to pay men and women different rates for equal work. So if the gap isn’t about women being paid less for equal work, what’s going on?

It’s a question that members of the campaigning group, Women in Publishing, sought to answer almost forty years ago when they looked at their own industry. They found that even though women outnumbered men two to one in publishing, they were rarely to be found in senior positions.

Why? Charlotte Gascoigne (C1657/06), who in 1985 was an editor of educational books at Longman, describes the assumptions made by employers about female members of staff.

Charlotte Gascoigne on the attitudes that held women back in the workplace

In 1989, WiP published ‘Twice an Many, Half as Powerful’, an independent survey that gathered data relating to employment patterns and pay. Clare Baker (C1657/17), the first female sales rep at Cambridge University Press (and a member of WiP’s survey committee), remembers the impetus behind it.

Clare Baker discusses the glass ceiling and 'Twice as Many Half as Powerful'

By the 1990s, things seemed to be moving towards a more equal distribution of power. In educational publishing Paula Kahn was chair and chief executive of Longman; in trade publishing Victoria Barnsley, the founder of Fourth Estate, was on her way to becoming the CEO and publisher of Harper Collins; in 1991 Gail Rebuck was made chair and chief executive of Random House UK. But not everyone was happy to see a woman in charge of a major publishing company. Here Gail Rebuck (C1657/11) describes the response of the UK press to her promotion.

Gail Rebuck recalls her depiction as 'a Barbie doll who crunched diamonds between her teeth' in the UK press

Today, almost 40 years after Women in Publishing was founded, companies with over 250 employees have been publishing their own gender pay gaps, and the government has been drawing together its conclusions as to why men dominate in terms of pay and power: many high paying sectors of the economy are disproportionately made up of male workers; a much higher proportion of women work part-time (and part-time workers earn less on average than their full time counterparts), and women are still less likely to progress up the career ladder into high paying senior roles.

Which prompts the question: if the gender pay gap reveals disparities in the jobs men and women do, and the way in which men and women are promoted, to what extent have women managed to shake off the stereotypes that were holding them back in 1979? And do the recent figures suggest that women are still being penalized for being mothers – or simply having the potential to bear children - in the workplace? Why are the majority of those in senior positions overwhelmingly male? And, after a period where women were heading up companies, have we come full circle?

To learn more about the fight for gender equality in the workplace, and about the campaigning group Women in Publishing, go to the new Women in Publishing oral history website which launches today.

03 April 2018

National Life Stories Podcast Episode 6: Science and Religion

“As soon as you say that you’re working on a project on Science and Religion everyone listening to that will have certain assumptions of what that could mean… you’re probably not thinking about something as unconventional or as imaginative as these examples seem to suggest”

Episode 6 of National Life Stories podcast features Paul Merchant talking to Charlie Morgan about his work on the project Science and Religion: Exploring the Spectrum. The oral histories conducted by Paul were part of a much larger project run out of Newman University, York University and the University of Kent and led by Dr Fern Elsdon Baker and Professor Bernard Lightman. You find out more information on their website.

Episode 6 image

All the interviews conducted by Paul are available on British Library Sounds. Clips in the episode are taken from the following interviews:

If you’d like to learn more check out our collection guide on Oral histories of religion and belief.

National Life Stories Podcast Episode 6: Science and Religion

An Elegant Sufficiency, or the Curious Case of a Victorian Meme

PhD placement student Rowan Campbell writes:

It sometimes strikes me just how much chance and canny timing have to do with the way we experience the world. While cataloguing audio files, I came across the following speaker (born 1944, London) who tells us that her great-grandmother used to say “I’ve had an elegant sufficiency”, which then became a family saying for when you have had enough to eat.

C1442 uncatalogued ELEGANT SUFFICIENCY

It is fairly common for kitchen table lingo to be submitted to the Evolving English WordBank, and having never heard it before, I assumed it to be one of these idiosyncratic family phrases and thought no more of it.

But the universe must have decided that this wasn’t good enough, and presented me with the phrase the very next day. To my offer of a second helping, a dinner guest replied, “I’ve had an elegant sufficiency, any more would be superfluity.” This was a phrase used by their grandmother at least two generations later than attested by the woman above, and I was now intrigued enough to dig further into where it might have come from.

It seems that I’m not the only one who is curious about it – a Google search reveals more questions about it than answers, with many believing it to be a phrase or joke unique to their family. It is attested in places as far-flung as the UK, Ireland, the USA, Canada, Australia, Sweden, Norway and a Swiss finishing school; variations of it crop up in novels by Margaret Atwood and Fred Chappell, and even more recently in radio and television shows The Archers and Last Tango in Halifax. So much for having died out in the sixties – although it does seem to exhibit age-grading tendencies, with each generation associating it with their grandparents.

Something about its verbose formality may have always seemed old-fashioned, and Frederic G. Cassidy’s investigation suggests that it rose out of the need to have politely appropriate stock phrases to hand, since “the spur of the moment can urge a speaker to disastrous infelicities.” The association with etiquette is taken further by one Guardian commenter who describes a class-based trickle-down effect whereby irony in the aristocracy is mistaken for gentility by the middle classes, then adopted by the “upper lower class” in a “valiant attempt” to better themselves. This is also implicit in the clip above, where the phrase immediately follows an ‘elocution lesson’ and exhortation to ‘speak properly’ from the speaker’s grandmother.

“An elegant sufficiency” first appears in James Thomson’s 1728 poem Spring, albeit in a context devoid of food. In the years between then and 1840, where Cassidy traces it back to, it seems to have become something of a pre-digital-age meme. Cassidy explains that it became “fashionable” to “invent new, amusing elaborations” on the two-part formula outlined above – much like the humorous and self-replicating concepts known as memes since the commercialisation of the internet in 1995.

In the North American context, this appears to have given rise to variations of “My sufficiency is fully surancified; any more would be obnoxious to my fastidious taste.” The word at the core of this has a variety of spellings and pronunciations, presumably due to not existing in any dictionary, but seems to have fossilised into phrases like sufficiently suffonsified and elephants and fishes eggs.

Unfortunately, however, I am not sufficiently suffonsified by my investigation. How did this concept proliferate and propagate without the internet, or at least written records? Will my millennial generation finally finish it off with our disregard for etiquette? Or will this blog help to enshrine it and give it a new lease of life for future generations?