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.