Think Pink

Part One

Back from my travels. Jet-lag more or less out of my system. What a strange journey it has been. Let me tell you how it came about.

Book Fair and Opera House

It all began some months ago when my friend David Tang invited me to the Hong Kong Book Fair. He made the offer dazzlingly tempting. There is no one and nothing in Hong Kong David doesn’t know and he and his wife Lucy are legendary hosts. Nonetheless, so sunk in commitments and so guilt-laden in my work obsession am I that I strongly considered giving the event the go-by. The same week, however, I was asked by the Sydney Opera House if I might consider doing an “evening” there. I don’t really have “an evening” so I reckoned I would probably add this request too to my list of reluctant declinings-declinations-declinements. A sudden realisation, however, gave me pause and stayed my hand from sending the “Thanks, but no thanks” emails. I have been commissioned by the BBC to present a five part series on language: provisional title Planet Word. The series aims to look at where language came from, how it works in us, how we use it, how it varies around the world, how much it constrains/fosters thought – examining all kinds of issues from the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis to taboo and transgression by way of oratory, poetry, insult, pedantry, dysphasia and the myriad astonishing things language invokes and provokes in us.

It would be quite unthinkable to make a programme on language without looking towards Chinese, of course. The diversity and uniqueness of the aboriginal languages of Australia and the speed of their tragic fall to extinction is something we would need to investigate too, not to mention the journey our language, English, made as it took root in Australian soil. So perhaps I could massacre a whole flock of birds with just two stones? Go to Hong Kong along with the series producer/director John Paul Davidson (who made my documentaries around America and one of the Last Chance to See films too), hire a local crew and shoot footage, pieces-to-camera and interviews relating to the Chinese languages before dropping down to Australia where, after the Sydney Opera House show we could film in and around New South Wales. I would even be saving the BBC money as my flights would all be taken care of by the organisers of the HKBF and the Sydney Opera House event. Saving the BBC money is, of course, the dearest wish of my bosom. I think of little else.

Nothing quite turns out as you expect it to. On the Planet Word front, David Tang and John Paul between them somehow managed to track down Zhou Youguang, the deviser of pinyin, in his 105th year and the oldest and probably the most influential (perhaps second after Tim Berners-Lee) human I have ever met. What is extraordinary is that this was his first ever TV interview. As the individual most responsible for allowing Mandarin Chinese to be transcripted into the Roman alphabet (giving us “Beijing”, for example and “Mao Zedong” instrad of the old Wade-Giles formulations, “Peking” and “Mao Tse Tung”) he could reasonably be called one of the most important linguists who ever lived. He hardly knew it when he was working on his system, of course, but it would prove crucial as a bridge between China and the rest of the world, allowing texting, typing, computing and all the excitements of the modern age to work in Putonghua or Mandarin Chinese.

In the meantime, the Sydney Opera House night sold out very quickly, largely due to the enthusiasm of loyal Australian Twitter followers. It was very gratifying but meant that the opera house asked if I might do a second night. This then led, thanks to the age old rivalry between the two cities, to pressure in the form of a “Come to Melbourne, Stephen” Facebook page, urging me to do a show in that city too. Once again Twitter worked its magic and a second show had to be slotted in. All around these performances John Paul and I managed to film as much as we could of aboriginal languages, surf slang (thanks to Kathy Lette) , Kath and Kim suburban talk, Australian political discourse and much else besides.

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16 comments on “Think Pink”

  1. JonSHarvey says:

    I am always wary of such lists, formulated as many of them are, by self selecting coteries. I would be far more interested in a list of people which had been crowd-sourced from the diversity of the UK twitterati. Are you taking nominations, Mr Fry?

  2. J_Marcel says:

    A hugely worthy point to make – crass decisions like the one re: Louie Spence do nothing more than force people underground once more. Bravo.

    (‘Louie’ rather than ‘Louise’ in the penultimate paragraph, incidentally – I’m afraid I did giggle.)


  3. Chris Miller says:

    I worry that Hitch will intellectualise/dissociate his agony at the expense of directly experiencing it, and postpone/compound the hurt. In the CNN interview he talks about grief being “somewhere in there” among the Kubler-Ross model, rather than the sum of its parts. Sure, reason is preferable to faith but it’s no substitute for sobbing your fucking heart out when it’s necessary. Difficult for an Englishman at the best of times, I know.

    Apologies if it’s not a legitimate observation. I imagine in private he’s been very vocal – I just hope he makes the best of the rest of his days, that they are many, and liberating. All the best.

  4. Chris Miller says:

    The Onion did it brilliantly,351/

    “After centuries of oppression as an ‘invisible’ segment of society, gays, emboldened by the 1969 Stonewall uprising, took to the streets in the early ’70s with an ‘in-your-face’ attitude. Confronting the worst prejudices of a world that didn’t accept them, they fought back against these prejudices with exaggeration and parody, reclaiming their enemies’ worst stereotypes about them and turning them into symbols of gay pride,” Thorne said. “Thirty years later, gays have won far greater acceptance in the world at large, but they keep doing this stuff anyway.”

    “Mostly, I think, because it’s really fun,” Thorne added.

  5. Stella01 says:

    As a fellow lover of linguistics and all things language-related, I’m excited to hear about Planet Word… I do hope that during your Australian walkabout you managed to get in touch with the Pormpuraawans (as mentioned in a recent article in the Wall Street Journal: by Lera Boroditsky).
    But then, you don’t have to go so far afield to find excellent examples of the links between language and culture. My personal favourite – as a Brit living in Italy – is the fact that the Italian equivalent of the English words “sly” or “crafty” is “furbo”. However unlike its English counterparts, the Italian word has clear positive connotations, and is generally considered a compliment! Perhaps this goes some way to explaining how this beautiful country ended up with its current leadership…

  6. jaryn says:

    So glad you enjoyed your time in Australia and I’m really looking forward to seeing Planet Word. Sounds QI…

    As for the Pink List. Yes, indeed, a thousand times. Of course, it all comes down to fear. A good thing to remember is that the heteronormative discourse of masculinity is, well, as ‘weak as piss’ to put in Australian slang terms… ;]. This is why those who buy into it, all that crap about ‘real’ men etc, are driven to desperation in order to uphold it and will go to pitiful, spiteful lengths to take down and keep down anyone who challenges it (which is everyone, whether they realise it or not). But I have hope that younger generations are leaving this archaic style of thought behind.


  7. Erynn says:

    Planet Word sounds fabulous. I’m looking forward to hearing more about it, and to seeing it when it comes around.

    Good on you for talking about the issues over the Pink List. I find it insulting and distressing when the queer community ostracizes its own for behavior that harms no one. Of course, I also find it insulting and distressing when that same community makes bi folks invisible despite how many bisexuals have been activists from the beginning. Thank you for speaking out, and for sharing your friend’s thoughts as well. I don’t know why we should all have to bow to conformity in a search for legitimacy; it’s very rarely a good way to get what’s actually necessary.

  8. leannich says:

    Oh, I’m very excited to hear about Planet Word!

    Meanwhile, the Louie Spence thing appalls me. I have two young boys, and I find myself in a constant state of simmering rage about the gender normativity they’re subjected to. (They seem so far, to be cisgendered; I’ve no idea where they fall on the sexuality spectrum.) The politics of the colour pink, for instance, seem riddled with hatred and oppression. It’s got worse in recent years, by all accounts. I wonder whether the gay community’s perception of “pink” has shifted too?


  9. Flynnly says:

    I would also like to add that I think Louie Spence is wonderful.He’s comfortable in his own skin (how pleasant that must that be!?) & I’m generally not a fan of reality shows but he really makes Pineapple worth watching. A friend of my girlfriend knows & works with him & says off camera that he’s a very down to earth & quiet chap. I suspect as it’s tv Louie is performing a little but it’s a wonderful performance & I think he helps make the world a little better.

    Very sad news indeed about Mr Hitchens.

    Ps I’ve put a couple of comments recently & all are waiting to be approved, apparently. I’m not a bot – I am very human & lurk in rural Herefordshire – but I am a fan of Stephen’s (ever since my student days of watching the excellent A Bit of Fry & Laurie.)

  10. SpooxXx says:

    Bless you for thinking of Louie. I think he is a breath of fresh air, and enjoy watching him on the television immensely. It would seem you’re damned if you do express yourself, and damned if you hide it. The only thing that’s important, I feel, is that you accept the way people are. How is it that pickled cows are acceptable in an art gallery as a form of expression, yet being blatantly gay – and non-offensive – isn’t?

    My complete support is with you.


  11. mrsthing says:

    Dear Stephen, thanks for this blog. You’re absolutely right–all kinds of gay people should be accepted, whether they fit a stereotype or not. Life is too short for that sort of snobbery. Go ahead and make your enemies. If you didn’t have any, you’d be such a swelled-headed git nobody would listen to you.

  12. michael says:

    Thanks thanks thanks for posting about the Pink list. It can feel so frustrating to see such things happen.

    reminded me of when Johnny Weir kept getting guff from other (straight AND gay) figure skaters for making the sport look too gay.

    you are right to mention Judith Butler, for this is really a GENDER issue and not just a gay/lesbian rights issue.

    (it also probly earned you big points from my partner, the gender studies prof. ;-) )

    cheers & see ya round.-m.e.

  13. CallumMc0 says:

    I was amused by this greatly primarily because I haven’t heard of Gareth Thomas or the sure-to-be legendary Mary “the Queen of Shops” Portas. So much for gay icons, but then I don’t really pay attention to the news. Why, only a few weeks ago, I walked past a copy of the Daily Mirror (methinks) which proclaimed: “Joe: I’m Gay!” Before I saw the additional “X Factor Exclusive”, I thought they had just asked someone on the street if he was gay or not and he’d said he was!!

    I also heard of a Mr. Adam Lambert recently, through a youtube video to do with Bill O’Reilly talking about the man even though he had never see him sing, perform or any other such. Now, I haven’t seen Mr. Lambert sing or any other such either, but Mr. O’Reilly’s flagrant homophobia was incredibly offensive!

    Personally, I feel, to a large part, we don’t really need any more gay rights groups in this country. I mean, perhaps they play a role of some sort, but gay people have equal rights in this country. Yes, there should be words in schools to the effect that gay people shouldn’t be prejudiced against, but other than that, there isn’t a lot that needs doing.

    The United States are another matter. I mean, the homophobia inherent to the country’s media output is just horrendous!! So, in short, methinks that people who make Gay Icons lists and campaign for gay rights in this country should go to America to help there!

    Or not, it’s up to them really.

  14. AnCBeck23 says:

    I had never heard of Louie Spence until today, but I think that whoever wrote that paragraph about him did a terrible thing. To me, it sounds like Mr. Spence is a very accomplished man who is making a living doing what he loves, and he should be able to continue doing so without a moment of feeling bad for not living up to some list makers’ or journalists’ standards. I am glad that you called out the person (whoever it was) that wrote those unkind things about him. Diversity isn’t just about different kinds of communities; it’s about different types of people within said communities. How boring it would be if we were all exactly alike!

    I don’t agree with Christopher Hitchens on a lot of things, but I respect his incredible writing talent and his ability to express his opinions with intelligence and honesty. I don’t think he’d be too comfortable with me praying for him, but he is definitely in my thoughts and I wish him well.

    And finally, Mr. Fry, I am so excited for your documentary on language. I’m sure it will be phenomenal, and I hope an American channel (PBS maybe?) will broadcast it at some point.

  15. DebSchiff says:

    Sounds like an excellent trip.

    I’m sure you get this all the time, but we’d love to see you in the U.S. at some point. While in no earthly way comparable to Sir Tang’s offer, with my meager earnings, I’d happily treat you to a cupcake (or whatever you wish) at Babycakes in NYC should you come to town.

    Sure it’s great seeing your work on in Bones episodes or (my current favorite) Kingdom, but will your new program on language be available online for those of us who look forward to your work from afar?

    Thanks for your truly original and engaging content. I appreciate the time and effort it takes to produce it.

  16. Pamela says:

    I seem to have a general distrust of “lists”. They are far too prevalent here in the States, and are fairly pointless as far as I can tell. However, coming in at number three was no doubt considered a compliment, so I congratulate you. As for Mr. Spence, I am unfamiliar with him, but the comments written about him on this list seem mean to me, and badly done.

    I want you to know how much I am enjoying your autobiography, Moab Is My Washpot. Just a delightful read. Is it true you have the second volume in the works?

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