Thursday, 8 November 2007

Shibboleth and still life

We went to the Tate Modern with the visiting French friends. They were horrified by the cost of public transport so bought the cheapest option: one day bus passes, which made getting there a mission and a half involving a circuitous route through parts of South London not normally on the tourist route. It was a false economy; instead of spending half the day steeped in Cubism, Futurism and Vorticism we endured the Gritty Realism of London traffic jams. It took so long to get anywhere near the Tate Modern that in spite of having had breakfast before they left everyone was hungry by the time we arrived. It was decided that Braque and Picasso would have to wait. The teenage boys would have headed for the nearest McDonalds had they known where to find one, but the parents wanted something better though not too expensive (quite a challenge on a South Bank heaving with tourists waiting to be relieved of their cash). We settled on a pub and sat outside where I helpfully pointed out London landmarks including the 'Cornichon', known to locals as the Gherkin building. Luckily they had all finished eating by the time the waiter revealed himself to be a disgruntled French student. He fell upon his compatriots like long-lost cousins: "How are you liking London? Food's not great here eh? I work 55 hours a week and get paid a pittance. I miss France and the 35-hour week and the minumum wage." I kept quiet. He assumed I was one of them. I pondered how much rope to give him, hoping he would feel ashamed at his whingeing diatribe against my home city when he realised I was not. The French nodded sympathetically; they looked at me. "Oh come on, it's not that bad," I said in French, knowing my accent would give me away. The student waiter did not seem at all shame-faced and actually gave a young man's slouchy version of the famous Gallic shrug. At that point, I am afraid I bit the bait: "All I am going to say," I said in French, "is what I say to whinging Brits in France: if you don't like it you can always go home." Even as I uttered the words I had a horrible thought: "I hope I don't sound like a card-carrying member of the Front National."

Tate Modern was a huge success. Everyone loved the 'Shibboleth' crack in the Turbine Hall floor. I made a valiant attempt to translate the leaflet we had been handed explaining what it all meant, while at the same time trying to stop La Fille, who was charging around like a demon (e-numbers in the pub sausages I suspect?) from actually falling into the crevice. The leaflet, which very sensibly advises visitors to "watch your step" describes this work by Colombian artist Doris Salcedo as representing, among many other things, division, racism, marginalisation along with the "brutal narratives of colonialism...and the stand-off between rich and poor, northern and southern hemispheres". Thought-provoking stuff, though most of the youngsters present seemed more interested in contemplating what was inside the crack than what it all meant. The most wonderful, evocative paragraph, however, was the explanation of the history of the word 'shibboleth'. According to the Oxford English Dictionary it is 'a word used as a test for detecting people from another district or country by their pronunciation; a word or sound very difficult for foreigners to pronounce correctly. Apparently this refers back to an incident in The Book of Judges in the Bible that describes how the Ephraimites, attempting to flee across the River Jordan, were stopped by their enemies, the Gileadites. The Ephraimite dialect did not include the sound 'sh' so in order to identify and kill them the Gileadites put each prisoner to a simple test by asking them to say 'Shibboleth'. Those who could not say the 'sh', and they numbered 42,000, were killed. Terrible, but you have to admit, devilishly clever. I could have tucked these details into a little pocket in my head and gone home happy, but the Cubists, Modernists and Vorticists were waiting on the 5th Floor. I knew I had a limited window of opportunity to interest La Fille, so I dragged her to the first Picasso in the room and began cooing in a way that makes me want to gag when I hear other mothers doing it: "Look at this lovely picture, what can you see?" in my most encouraging voice. But even as I wittered and tipped her chubby face up to examine Bowl of Fruit, Violin and Bottle I knew it was a lost cause. "Games," she said pointing outside the exhibition room where a series of not-uninteresting (the first time at least) interactive games and models have been set up. "Games." And that is as far as I got. I left Tate Modern listening to the others talking about what they had seen, feeling a complete Philistine. All I had done was walked across a cracked concrete floor, gazed at one Picasso (briefly) and helped La Fille turn a knob to change a lens and distort the shape of a model cow inside a box oh, I would say roughly one hundred times.
Still, at least I had the 'Shibboleth' gem tucked away.

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