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No one else will write about Carrie Fisher as well as she wrote about herself Take a butcher's at this: a new history of slang

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NewsHubCarrie Fisher was a writer and performer who found worldwide stardom as Princess Leia in Star Wars (1977), released when she was just 19. It was her first leading role, after a striking cameo in Shampoo (1975), and she reprised the part in two sequels in the 1980s, and a further two made this decade.
Fisher would later say that Star Wars had inadvertently “tricked” her into celebrity; that she had been a bookish teenager, more interested in writing than performing, and had she known how famous the film would make her, she would have turned it down.
Yet stardom was the family business. Fisher’s mother, Debbie Reynolds, had also achieved international fame aged 19, for her first leading role (in 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain ), and her daughter was surrounded by almost impossibly famous people since birth.
To create a single iconic screen characterisation – as Fisher did with Princess Leia – is more than most performers hope to achieve. It does not denigrate Fisher’s work in other fields to acknowledge the scale of Star Wars ’ cultural impact, given that she made a significant contribution to its popularity.
It is also not true to imply, as some have, that she achieved little else as a performer after the original Star Wars trilogy. Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), The ‘Burbs, and When Harry Met Sally… (both 1989) are fine films, great examples of their respective genres, and Fisher is extremely good in all three of them. She might never have played the female lead in a film as successful as Star Wars again – but for decades after she did, neither did anyone else.
In 1987, Fisher published Postcards from the Edge , a novel that drew on her own life as second generation Hollywood Royalty. When her book became a film, Fisher wrote the screenplay, and many expected her to also play the lead, Suzanne. The role instead went to Meryl Streep, who was nominated for an Oscar. When asked why she didn’t take the part herself, Fisher was clear that she didn’t want to, insisting: “I’ve already played Suzanne.”
From then on, Fisher’s acting work, such as playing a therapist in the first Austin Powers (1997) or her Emmy-nominated turn in 30 Rock (2007), took its cues from her own writing. It played on her fame, public persona and known interests and passions, including her work with mental health organisations – an intertwining of her life and art that continued for the rest of her life.
In parallel to performing, and a continuing career as a novelist, the success of the Postcards film made Fisher an in-demand Hollywood screenwriter. This was largely “polishing” – for payment but without credit – scripts attributed to other hands. A comprehensive list of these screenplays is inherently difficult to compile, but her uncredited work is acknowledged to be seen in Hook (1991), Sister Act (1992), The Wedding Singer (1998) and several Star Wars films in which she did not appear.
She did receive credit for her episode of Star Wars creator George Lucas’ Young Indiana Jones television series. (It depicted the teenage Indiana’s affair with Mata Hari, was directed by Nicolas Roeg, and is as odd as that description makes it sound.)
In 2001, she wrote and received credit for the screenplay for These Old Broads , a celebration of women in Hollywood in the generation above her. It starred Shirley MacLaine (who had played Suzanne’s mother in Postcards from the Edge ) and Elizabeth Taylor, the woman for whom her father, Eddie Fisher, left her mother in 1959.
Her most recent book, The Princess Diarist , published in November this year, was a volume based on diaries she had kept while making Star Wars. Witty and emotionally complex, it provoked headlines by confirming longstanding rumours about her on-set affair with Harrison Ford, and was accompanied by an international signing tour, from which she was returning when she was taken ill.
On the London leg of her tour, a friend of mine found himself roughly in the middle of the long, long queue of people wanting a few moments with her. As his turn approached, she shot him a wicked look: “I’ll do you before my break,” she said. “And then during my break, I’ll do you. A girl has to relax somehow.” My friend – not easily embarrassed and far from a blushing novitiate – turned crimson and was reduced to monosyllables, to Fisher’s great, cackling delight. She then posed with him for a picture in which both are beaming. Like a Colette or even an Anaïs Nin, her public life had become as much her art form as her performances and writing.
It is her writing that should be a lasting memorial. Others could perhaps have played Princess Leia nearly as well, but only Carrie Fisher could have written Postcards from the Edge or her one-woman show and subsequent memoir Wishful Drinking. The next few days will be filled with tributes to her, including this one, but all will be insufficient. No one else will ever write about Carrie Fisher as well as she wrote about herself.
In 1950, the postwar crime reporter Percy Hoskins (of the Daily Express ) published a book whose title was appropriated by a British television series in the late 1960s and 1970s. This book – No Hiding Place! – promised to be “the full authentic story of Scotland Yard in action”, and it remains a compulsive read today, not least for its helpful guide to underworld slang, presented in an appendix “for the benefit of the young detective”.
From this, we learn such standard slang terms as “bracelets” for handcuffs, “dabs” for fingerprints and “milky” for cowardly, but also less guessable coinages, such as: “He did a tray on the cave-grinder” (he got three months’ hard labour), “kybosh” (one shilling and sixpence) and “on the jamclout” (shoplifting).
At this distance in time, such unlikely stuff probably raises more questions than it answers. For example, why would “on the jamclout” mean shoplifting, when “jamclout” surely means sanitary towel? Was Hoskins being had on? Were unscrupulous criminals shooting him a line?
Consulting other, later slang dictionaries, I couldn’t find the expression at all, but if we go back to the trusty Eric Partridge, in A Dictionary of the Underworld (1949), we find him quoting a source from 1933: “One member of a team makes a small purchase and holds the clerk’s attention while the other steals.” Aha. You will notice that Partridge doesn’t specify the type of small purchase, perhaps out of delicacy, but I think we are finally getting closer to the etymology, if we use our loaves to join the dots.
This is the trouble with books on slang. However exhaustive they are, they always leave you asking, “But why?” Max Décharné’s engaging book Vulgar Tongues is a spectacular feat, collating information from a mind-boggling range of sources – from jazz lyrics to dime novels, from 18th-century brothel directories to 1960s criminal autobiographies.
Take a word such as “chippie”, meaning whore. Décharné gives us a couple of quotations from Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest (1929) and Raymond Chandler’s The High Window (1942) – which is where you would expect him to find some. But his killer examples are the title of the jazz record “Chasin’ Chippies” by Cootie Williams and His Rug Cutters (1938) and an exchange from a 1960 Chester Himes novel set in Harlem, The Big Gold Dream :
“I was watching out for my girls,” Dummy replied.
“Your girls?”
“He’s got two chippie whores,” Grave Digger replied. “He’s trying to teach them how to hustle.”
Confronted with such impressively wide reading, it seems churlish to ask for more. Yet I find it frustrating that someone so immersed in jive talk doesn’t ask bigger questions about it. Every chapter (on sex, crime, the police, and so on) is written in the same way, and with the same basic purpose: to impress the reader with the variety and colourful nature of historical slang, and to prove through a plethora of examples that words that you thought were coined in 1965 had been around (sometimes meaning something else) since the 19th century, or at least since the Jazz Age.

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