Thursday, November 19, 2009

The real Henry Higgins

Reading this obituary took me back thirty odd years to a lecture theatre in a brutalist concrete building in Leeds. The first year English students were being lectured about accent and dialect by the great Stanley Ellis. He asked one of our number, picked at random, to say a few words. He'd chosen Bob McNally, a lad whose accent to the rest of us was just "Geordie". Stanley had other ideas. After listening for  no more than a few seconds, he identified the precise area within Newcastle where Bob came from, and also suggested that he'd spent some time in his adolescence away from Geordie land, naming, I think, an area in Yorkshire. An astonished Bob confirmed this was the case. We applauded.
Stanley Ellis was a delightful, down to earth man with a passion for the linguistic diversity of this country. Leeds had become a major centre for the study of accent and dialect, thanks to Harold Orton's  Survey of English Dialects, to which Ellis contributed. The arrival of this man, in a caravan, with an unwieldy primitive tape-recorder, must have been startling for the rural communities he visited- especially when he asked the questions. The researchers wanted to avoid planting words in the minds of the subjects, so, if they wanted to elicit the local word for a cowshed, say, they would ask something like "What do you call the building where you keep the animals that go moo?" One can imagine how this might have gone down with the tough farming types who were the typical respondents.
Stanley's party piece could be useful, as the obituary reports:

He came to national prominence when he declared that a tape released by the police in June 1979, purporting to be the voice of the Yorkshire Ripper – then suspected of the murder of 10 women – was by a hoaxer, someone who hailed from Castletown, a small village on the edge of Sunderland, Tyne and Wear – many miles from the scenes of crime. The police disregarded his warning, a decision that may have put their investigation on the wrong track for more than 18 months.

Ellis was proved to have been right in 2005, when the hoaxer was identified and shown to have lived all his life within walking distance of the area Ellis had pinpointed.

Another former student wrote to the Guardian, with a similar story to mine - Stanley must have delighted and entertained thousands of students with his ability, born, of course, of intense study.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


Too busy to blog much of late, but thought I would mention a gig by The Visitors. They were at The Studio in Manchester to launch their new CD, and a small but select band were there to see it. They are led by Karl Walsh, a Madchester scene veteran, and play power pop with some interestingly subtle vocal arrangements, mainly as a result of the interplay between Walsh and the other lead singer, Mike Crook.
As the website and video suggests, they've gone for a visual vibe that owes a lot to fifties science fiction, particularly, it seems to me The Day The Earth Stood Still, with Walsh as Klaatu. That's reflected in the song Visitor, which puts them in the select bracket of groups who have written a song with their own name as the title - Living in a Box springs to mind.
At the gig, from which my eardrums have just about now recovered, two weeks later, Karl turned up in silver lycra, but the rest of the band obviously didn't fancy the look, so there was a curious mismatch. From left to right, we had Klaatu, Mike as Steve Harley, and, behind them, er, two blokes who'd turned up from the council to collect your old fridge on bass and drums. Still, the sound, particularly from bassman Paul Petricco was prodigious, and, with a bit of exposure, there's no reason why they shouldn't do well. I'd drop the silver lycra though.