Mad English

Under review: some advice from Nigeria and the ultimate fashion victim

Mad English

Life Turns Man Up and Down: High Life, Useful Advice, and Mad English (Pantheon, $26.95) is a charming anthology and affectionate tribute to a now-vanished subgenre in African literature: the continent's first popular street literature that flourished in the form of pamphlets distributed at the Onitsha Market in Nigeria -- Africa's largest open-air market -- from the end of World War II until the late Sixties. These illustrated pamphlets were written by a cadre of wildly creative first-generation writers of English. Representative titles include: "Lack of Money Is Not Lack of Sense," "Drunkards Believe Bar as Heaven," "No Condition Is Permanent," "How to Write Famous Love Letters, Love Stories and Make Friends With Girls," "Mabel the Sweet Honey That Poured Away," and "Why Harlots Hate Married Men and Love Bachelors."

Equal parts practical advice, romance fiction, and stern lecturing on living the moral life, each excerpt has its gems:

"All the characters in this book are all round imaginary. Note, none is real. It is no true story and therefore concerns nobody in any way. Whoever hits his head at the ceiling does it at his own personal fatal risk." -- from Life Turns Man Up and Down

"Most of you guys are aware of the fact that the English language consists of so many proverbs, and what have you got generally. Anytime a mug finds that he has lost some words to a dame and cannot explain something, he probably has to suck his lips and pretend to stammer. That is, supposing you are confronted as to what to say to a baby, you would like to read a book on human psychology." -- from Adventures of the Four Stars, by J.A. Okeke Anyichie

"Their literature is one of the rare occasions where the introduction of the Word to a primarily oral society is laid bare in print," private librarian Kurt Thometz, who selected the entries, writes in a fascinating essay. What's more, Life Turns Man Up and Down is the most beautifully designed book of the year.

Mad English

Zebras aren't reactionaries, although Paul Simon would have us think otherwise. Considered by the medieval mind to be diabolical creatures because of their stripes, they are more likely to "turn on frequently" or "plot in secrecy" than be knee-jerk conservatives. That is, if the revelations regarding "stripes" and striped fabrics unearthed in The Devil's Cloth: A History of Stripes and Striped Fabrics (Columbia University Press, $22.95) have any validity. Author Michel Pastoureau is an expert in medieval heraldy and is a professor of the history of Western symbols at the Sorbonne. The bottom line of Pastoureau's argument is that if you wore stripes during medieval times then you were the spawn of Mephistopheles. Stripes were symbolically transgressive of the social order and consigned to pariahs like the insane, the convict, the fool, the juggler, the prostitute, the leper, and the hangman, among others.

Perhaps the best documented imbroglio about stripes involves the Carmelite Order, a stripe-wearing monastic religious group that appeared in Paris in 1254. Their explanation for the origin of their stripes was the Old Testament prophet Elijah, whose white robe was burned into a striped pattern by the "chariot of fire" that transported him into the sky. The Carmelites were repeatedly denigrated for their stripe-wearing ways until Pope Bonaface VIII laid down the law in 1295: Stripes could not be worn by any religious orders.

Such controversies over stripes were fairly common, and Pastoureau gives an account of perhaps the ultimate fashion victim, one Colin d'Aurrichier, a clergyman from Rouen, who in 1310 "had been caught wearing stripes" and was executed. But there have also been times when stripes have lost their pejorative aura and have become chic. Perhaps the best example of this is the American Revolution and the stars and stripes of the American flag. (Incidentally, "stars" were also demonized by the medieval mind.) Uncle Sam suddenly became a fashion plate, and the wearing of stripes became a revolutionary act in which one aligned oneself with a progressive political operation that opposed the British monarchy. And upon the culmination of the American Revolution stripes weren't just chic anymore, they were the rage. The stripe even filtered back to the United Kingdom around 1780 and showed up in "dresses, jackets, jerkins, coats, frocks, waistcoats, petticoats, blouses, stockings, pants, trousers, aprons, ribbons, scarves." This stripe craze continued to the 20th century -- Picasso flaunted his outlaw status with his horizontally striped jerseys. The author recounts an anecdote in which his father accompanied Picasso to a haberdashery where the painter demanded vertically striped pants that "stripe the ass."

Pastoreau is at his best when he makes observations that visually illustrate his argument. For example, the convict's horizontal stripes and the vertical stripes of prison bars converge into a symbolic "cage" protecting us from them. Stretching this concept even further, striped pajamas and striped sheets form a similar symbolic cage that supposedly excludes nightmares from our nocturnal consciousness. Pastoureau may have earned his stripes when it comes to stripes, but he never really explains what it is about stripes that makes people buggy. That said, The Devil's Cloth is big enough to stimulate even the most jaded neo-cortex and yet small enough at 136 pages to stuff into somebody's stocking.

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Life Turns Man Up and Down: High Life, Useful Advice, and Mad English, Kurt Thometz, Onisha Market literature

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