I’ve seen three new exhibitions since being bored senseless by the British Museum’s Book of the Dead, and all of them are vastly superior to that banal blockbuster.
While the British Museum takes a complacent Tesco-like approach of pile it high and intimidate people with sheer weight of history, the Imperial War Museum, Wellcome Collection and British Library all have to work a little harder to get any attention and the results are far more satisfying.
Take Evolving English at the British Library, a superb exhibition about the history of the English language that offers both intelligence, insight and, most tellingly, the cheerful sense of humour that is lacking from Great Russell Street.
There are showstopping exhibits here, such as manuscripts of Jane Austen’s ‘Persuasion’ and Joyce’s ‘Finnegans Wake’ and a copy of ‘Beowulf’, while the curators were ecstatic about a cabinet that featured side-by-side four historic bibles – the Wycliffe, Tyndale, Book of Common Prayer and King James.
But there are also wilder treats hidden in the margins.
One section on the differences between spoken and written English was illustrated by letters from schoolchildren to their teacher, my beloved BS Johnson, written in a glorious mixture of slang, formality and stream of consciousness that later found their way verbatim into his novel ‘Albert Angelo’. (‘Mr Johnson has a poor outlook towards us, calling us peasants and other insulting names of which we would like to contradict… Mr Johnson on the whole although he isn’t all there is a rotton teacher but not proffesionally for he teaches well… in school Mr Johnson is an authentic nit.’)
The section on profanity is illustrated with a copy of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ and a copy of Viz, while you can explore London English by reading extracts from Charles Dickens or you can just listen to ‘Gertcha!’.
London English, we are reminded, adopts words from many different cultures and I was intrigued to learn about the history of the Black London idiom ‘aksed’ for ‘asked’. This apparently originated in south-west England and found its way to the Southern US states and the Caribbean through emigration, before returning to London via the West Indian diaspora. Take it away, Smiley Culture.