13 March 2008

It's Steve! Don't Panic!

It's already way late and I'm already way tired and yet there's nothing like an (almost) chance encounter with one's favourite celebrity linguist to perk one up (surely the chance of us both being free and in London on the same night, given how large the universe is has an almost infinite improbability!). S knows my tastes so well and this evening, we went to the Sixth Annual Douglas Adams Memorial Lecture, an event hosted by Save the Rhino International, of which Douglas Adams was a founding patron. It was actually perfect for both of us: a talk by Steven Pinker on The Stuff of Thought, followed by a live performance of episode two of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, to which I'm just going to refer as H2G2 from now on, for convenience, to commemorate the thirty-year anniversary of the original airing of the radio series, complete with members of the original cast.

I didn't realise that the performance was going to happen as when S sent me a link to the lecture I just read the part about Steve and then switched off. Although I spent many a Friday night in the Triple Set (Adams's rooms while an undergrad at my college, which consisted of three bedrooms, a kitchen, and a huge dining room complete with a massive dining room table), which is said to have inspired some long room in one of his books and although I have probably listened to H2G2 many times over, it has never been chronological as my dad would play a few minutes of one episode on a car journey and then switch to Bill Bryson or some prog-rock. Still, even I was excited by the performance.

First, there was an intro by John Lloyd of QI fame, which was quite interesting - all about the stuff of rhinos and biodiversity. He also told an amusing anecdote about Adams: a few months before Adams died, he, Lloyd and Richard Curtis, who were all great friends met up for lunch and to catch up and gossip. At one point, Adams said, perfectly seriously, "So, I've been doing some thinking and I now know what the meaning of life is." Curtis apparently considered this and realised that as Adams tended to go on a bit once he had an idea in his head, if he asked Adams what the meaning of life was they would never get round to their gossiping and so instead, he said, "That's nice, Douglas; how's Jane?" and so he never got to find out what the meaning of life was but he did get to catch up on the gossip.

On strolls Steve. I wished I had left work thirty minutes earlier so we could have got seats closer to the front. 

The talk was fun but then a) I've read the book and b) I've heard very similar talks in several different podcasts. Basically, the layman-friendly parts of the book are: the "physics" of language and linguistic relativity; swearing and how we use it to evoke strong emotional reactions in people; and social interactions and the joys of innuendo and indirect speech. I'd read or heard most of the jokes before but it was still funny and great just to see Steve swearing, or, at least, reading out lists of expletives. He mentioned that he wanted to bring back bestiality into swearing and cited a 16th-century oath - kiss the cunt of a cow - which was his favourite (not least because of the alliteration). I raised my hand to ask a question at the end but didn't get called on; boo!

The audience were told to all stand up and to think about how much they would pay to see a live performance of an episode of H2G2 with some of the original cast and Rhino Man 1 would then read out different price bands and people were asked to sit down when they reached the maximum they would pay (and that they would pledge to donate this money to Rhinos on leaving). Most people - including me - sat down in the £1-10 bracket; it was a tough question for me because I had paid my 15 squids for Steve and probably wouldn't have come were it not for him. I probably would have paid more than that for the performance but I only had a fiver in my wallet. Steve was more generous and pledged £20. On leaving, though, I noticed that the collection buckets were mostly full of £20 notes, so I guess people were suitably guilt tripped.

Finally, on came the show, which was really good and (of course) really funny. Simon Jones walked on first, wearing Arthur Dent's dressing gown and then Mark Wing Davey (Zaphod Beeblebrox), Stephen Moore (Marvin the robot who inspired Thom Yorke and co.) and the rest. The performance was being recorded for future use (hence no cameras - ah-hem!) so I tried to laugh in as distinctive a way as possible, although probably, canned laughter will be used; none was necessary tonight, certainly. We were sitting next to the guy controlling the sound effects from his Mac, which was quite cool, even though the actors on stage were pretending to make the noises using random "props." It was definitely a great experience and has prompted me to try to finally get round to listening to the damn thing - in order.

But the fun wasn't quite over yet! S and I joined the queue to leave the lecture hall but it was quite slow-moving. Steve was chatting to some Rhino people on stage so I took a few blurry cameraphone snaps and then decided that I was just going to go and speak to him, even if it was Rhino folk only. I hurried over, having fumbled in my bag for a pen and my first copy of The Language Instinct, only to realise that I was about to ask Steven Pinker to sign my book with a frigging Clinique eyeliner in "midnight diamond." I quickly ran back to find a real pen, worried that Steve would evade me. But no! I asked him to sign my book and he agreed and asked to whom it should be written and I reminded him briefly of the context of our previous interactions, pointing to a conveniently positioned t-shirt I was wearing. "Ah, yes," he said, and we had a brief chat about SLI, which was very exciting for me indeed. I even asked him for a few linguistics/academic-related favours, as per the said context of our previous interactions and he said he would. I think I was very restrained not asking him to sign my t-shirt!

After our brief, two-minute chat, he was whisked away by a Rhino person but they were behind us in the queue on the way out and S took a sneaky photo on his phone that included both Steve and me. Never mind; this almost makes up for the time when S and I went to see Pacey from Dawson's Creek Patrick Stewart and Josh Jackson in A Life in the Theatre, and although there was no photography, all the teenage girls were taking photos during the applause so I tried to as well, only for S to stop me because he didn't want to get my camera confiscated. Of course, I'm not still holding a grudge. Honest!

I can also confirm that Steve's hair is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind- bogglingly big it is.

What larks! Two days of London journeys in a row have left me exhausted and without any time to chill or to think. I really wouldn't go for the commuting lifestyle - obviously you get into rhythms over time but I know I would always leave at the last minute and always be rushing to catch a train and end up sweaty and exhausted every day. A ten-minute walk over the common is a much more pleasant commute - except when it's gale force 10 outside again.

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