Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Sunday, 30 September 2007

English in its underwear

Scots is English in its underwear. It's difficult to be pretentious in a language like that.

I’m sorry to say that the above quote is not one of mine. I’m far from sorry to say that I knew the man who said it. William McIlvanney is a much-respected Scottish writer who wrote vernacular fiction years before Irvine Welsh and who can not only be credited with creating Tartan Noir crime fiction (Ian Rankin dedicated his second ‘Rebus’ novel to him) but also with making it literary. He has just published his latest novel after a ten-year gap.

CBC Radio One has recently broadcast an interview with the author and this is, I'm not ashamed to say, nothing less than a shameless plug, not that I imagine he needs it.

Anyone who has read even a couple of my blogs will realise that language fascinates me and I owe a lot to this guy. He has pointed out more than once that the lower down the social ladder you get, the more metaphorical (and this encompasses similes, metonymies and synecdoches), the more idiomatic, and quite simply, the more poetic the language gets. The poetry we got at school was canned, full of preservatives, contrived. It couldn’t hold a candle to what we heard in the playground.

My background was not that dissimilar from McIlvanney’s. Our fathers each more intelligent than he was, educated with a son he didn’t quite get. Neither could see the point in reading fiction, “summat someone’s jist made up oot o’ their heed,” but both did read non-fiction. We both started off as poets before we became novelists – in spite of, or because of, all the Burns we had to read (it’s hard to be sure) – but neither of us could leave the poetry alone; like a toddler, it gets into everything.

The most important thing I learned from him is that it matters how you say something. It’s not enough to state your case and get off the page. Meaning is more than simple understanding; it’s a whole other ball game.

Look at these two examples:

Running was a dangerous thing. It was a billboard advertising panic, a neon sign spelling guilt. Walking was safe. You could wear strolling like a mask. Stroll. Strollers are normal. (Laidlaw)

Life's a spendthrift mother. Once she has given what she has, it's ungrateful to complain that she didn't have the foresight to take out an insurance policy on your behalf. (Strange Loyalties)

My own writing is quite different to McIlvanney’s – I never felt the need try and emulate his style even in the couple of short stories I’ve written in dialect – but the simple fact is he was the first writer I ever met in the flesh and got to talk to and, do you know what, he was just a bloke: no airs and graces and certainly no pretensions, as if being a writer was no different from being a miner or a teacher or the guy whose job it was to lock up the swings at night, something maybe I could be.

A couple of serious articles on the subject of Scottish metaphor worth having a look at:

A Scottish Identity: Experimental articulation through a dynamic system of metaphors

Metaphors we liveD by


Alan said...

My partner's late previous partner was from Scotland and, I am told, had a very thick brogue and unusual (for here) speech. And thanks for the info abt Wm McIlvanney. Going to see if I can find some of his stuff at a library somewhere and get it sent.

Kathy McIntosh said...

I love posts that tickle my brain. Although I love language, I'd never considered that class distinction, but it surely rings true.
As we "grow up" and try to become more polished and sophisticated, we give up our fresh new eyes and our willingness to be open and honest. When we take off those "rough edges," maybe we're chipping away the best and most sparkly parts.
I'll be joining Alan in the quest for William McIvanney.

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