The Silver Eel

"A gape-jawed serpentine shape of pale metal crested with soot hung high for a sign."

Saturday, January 14, 2006



Derren Brown: The Heist
The illusionist returns to undertake his most ambitious challenge to date. Under the guise of a motivational seminar and a follow-up documentary, he tries to persuade his group of responsible, middle-management businessmen and women to steal £100,000 in an armed robbery. Derren aims to illustrate how little it takes to cross into deviant behaviour and presents a masterclass in mind control

No-one - repeat, no-one - who works in middle-management needs a lesson in deviant behaviour.


'...Thesiger told him [Gavin Maxwell] in a rather intimidating tone that they would have to shoot their own dinner. "And God help you if you miss," Thesiger said. "It's food we're after; we can't carry enough cartridges for sport. Your reputation among these people [the marsh Arabs of Iraq] will stand or fall absolutely by what you kill or don't kill and they're all watching you." "As an encouraging introduction to shooting while sitting cross-legged in the bottom of a perilously wobbling canoe," Maxwell commented, "I felt this could hardly be improved upon." When Thesiger handed him two cartridges and said that was all he would get, though, Maxwell realised that he had been wrong - it could. He was informed that Thesiger expected "200 per cent success" from these two measly rounds, but when Maxwell proceeded to bring down three coots with his first shot, the canoe-boys spoilt the whole bluff by erupting in excitement. Somewhat chagrined, Thesiger said, "Pity you aren't leaving us now; trouble about reputations won on flukes is that they're so short-lived." He looked, Maxwell said, "like a scoutmaster whose oldest and most oafish pupil has tied an accomplished and esoteric knot by accident."'

I posted on John Buchan's Prester John a while back. It turns out that Thesiger read it while at St Aubyn's prep school and it made a tremendous impact on him. Asher notes that while most of his contemporaries would have described the young Scot David Crawfurd as the hero of the book, Thesiger identified with Laputa, the leader of the black rebellion. Thesiger's attitude towards the Bedu in later life can be fairly compared with Buchan's towards Laputa - he admires them as "noble", but it's still pretty patronising: he wants them to remain in their place, uncorrupted perhaps, but also powerless outside their immediate environment. In some ways it's not such a distant reaction. Which of us doesn't feel at least a quiver of fear at the prospect of a highly industrialised, competitive
India, or China, for whatever reason?


I was talking about regional Scots accents with my parents a while back - specifically I was trying to find out if the use of 'ane' instead of 'yin' for 'one' could be identified with any particular part of Scotland, as it comes up in the Edinburgh writer J.K. Annand's Bairn Rhymes, and I'd never come across it - and they mentioned that in the Borders one can still hear the use of 'oos' for 'we'. As in 'oos ga'n' for 'we are going'. Not long after, I read in Anthony Burgess's autobiography Little Wilson and Big God:

'My grandfather would say, if Mary Ann had a headache, "Oo's getten 'eed-warch". The "oo" is Anglo-Saxon heo and the "warch" is from weorc. He would translate this for foreigners as "She's got a headache", but the
Lancashire phonemes would cling to the straight English. So, for a long time, with myself. I regret the death of the dialect, which was once a literary medium: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight comes from the Wirral peninsula and would have been intelligible to the mediaeval Wilsons.'

Probably a lot later than that if Burgess had found some other elderly or less urbanised relatives - Alan Garner read aloud sections of Sir Gawain to his father, drawing this response: "Yon's a grand bit of stuff. I recollect as Ossie Leah were just the same. Is there any more?"

Ignorance of cultural variety and the prejudice of 'civilised' RP is still around:

'A part of the meaning of this [an extract from Sir Gawain] could be guessed. But who, without specialist help, could arrive at the conclusion that someone is here putting on his armour, and who could guess the meaning of "queme quyssewes" (pleasing thigh pieces) or "wlonk" (noble, glorious, fine)? Who could guess their pronunciation?'
[from An Introduction to English Poetry, by James Fenton]

What are we to take from this? That the purpose of English is to level, to make smooth and even and absolute? Oos ga'n.


At 15 January 2006 at 18:01 , Blogger Joe said...

An increasing acceptance and use of a 'standard' form of English (as if language remains staric and unchanged!) really begins with the introduction and spread of the moveable type printing press, so I guess Old Man Caxton has a hadn in it, unwittingly. Increasing transport links and mass production of standard texts increases this. Eventually you have a situation whereby to write in a dialect is to cut yourself off from the mass of readers in the land and you find books in dialects often relegated to small local publishers, aimed and sold to the specific local audience (poetry and folk tales being the most common subjects).

Interesting that later new communication technology originally increases this destruction of linguistic diversity, with the early BBC broadcasts being a prime culprit. The teaching of English in schools continues the process until we have a situation where a mix of mass communication technology, from printing presses to broadcast media and institutions of state, such as school boards, leave us with 'normal' English being the accepted written version and dialects something an increasingly smaller amount of people use as a spoken language only in their own area.

Matthew Fitt who has championed the use of BroadScots pointed out that many Scots know the words he uses in his books but are utterly unfamiliar with seeing them written down. I know several times reading his material I've had to sound out the word I am reading before I suddenly realised what it was. Ironically new, accessible technologies may also throw a lifeline to minrority languages and dialects, making it easier to produce books in Gaelic, websites in Yorkshire dialects and so on.

While a standard English is useful in a modern society so we can all actually talk to one another (and incidentally help India take our jobs!!) the loss of regional dialects and smaller language groups is to be resisted where possible. Pity the Scottish Parliament, which has done some work towards protecting Scots Gaelic, refuses to do the same for BroadScots. Bunch o' scunners.

At 8 February 2006 at 14:54 , Blogger Yvonne said...

Wha's like us? Gey few and they're a' deid.

Hurrah for dialects, which were alive and well the last time I visited your fair land. In Perth, they say, "Where d'you stay?" whereas as in Dundee, 20 miles away, they say, "Where d'you bide?" (very confusing for Sassenachs like me, who would say "Where d'you live?") I also recall a wonderful phone conversation between a (Scottish) colleague and an English person, where my colleague promised to uplift the goods, and was completely mystified when her interlocutor had nae idea whit she was talkin' aboot.

At 11 February 2006 at 09:43 , Blogger The Silver Eel said...

I just about have the ear for Scots, but not the tongue, at least not anymore. I don't remember ever learning Scots, though at some level I must have been aware of it - I guess you just pick it up by osmosis - and I don't think we particularly talked broad where I grew up, though there was a definite accent.

Now, of course, there has been a tremendous influx of English people into Scotland, so that a colonisation which was previously mainly cultural and political has become - what's the word? - demographic? - for the first time. We're hearing many more southern English accents in Edinburgh, where we've been accustomed to Geordie, Yorkshire and Lancashire. What long-term effect on language and regional variety within Scotland this will have is anyone's guess; of course, this process is taking place across the whole of the UK. It's heartening to note, however, that Scots is enjoying something of a deliberate resurgence.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home