The Games Book Tour: Autumn 2018

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UK Book Tour 2018

More Wirds

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The strangest thing happened in the Lerwick Tescos, where I stocked up on basics for a month staying at Sumburgh Head: when the person at the till asked if I’d like some boxes to carry everything in, she called me “du”. I hadn’t heard the familiar and informal “you”, pronounced “thu” in Orkney, addressed to me in casual speech, for maybe twenty years. I remember it as perfectly ordinary when I was younger (when I was peedie, corrects my mind), living in Westray (not on, corrects my mind), but when I’m home in Orkney now I never hear it, not with my half-in-half-out accent as a prompt, and definitely not in Tescos. Hearing it then felt like finding a diamond on the pavement, and over the next month I gathered pockets full of diamonds, because, again, it was perfectly ordinary.

I was in Shetland partly to retreat and work on my own Orkney language book, and partly to read, listen to and speak about as much of the Shetland language as I could, to find out what was happening there and what, maybe, other language revitalisation projects could learn from it. There were other things than the precious Tescos Du that struck me, sometimes astonished me. I went to Shetland ForWirds annual concert, which featured three or four generations of Shetland speakers in poetry, theatre and song, and had an audience of a couple of hundred. (The ForWirds website is stuffed full of resources and activity.) I burrowed through the Shetland section of the Lerwick library, which had around three times as many books in dialect, mostly poetry and storytelling but plenty other besides, as the same section in Kirkwall’s. One book, Bjorn Sandison’s children’s novel Mystery at Da Laird’s Haa, is the most fluid and natural Scots prose I’ve ever read, without ever compromising on the integrity of the tongue: with a vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation that’s substantially different than the Orcadian I grew up with, I was amazed at how easy I found it to read, and put that down to the strength of the language around me.

I had the conversation about why the language seems stronger in Shetland than Orkney several times with different folk, and never were we able to pin it down exactly. Perhaps it’s to do with Shetland’s greater distance and Orkney’s greater involvement with global trade and colonisation, but given that both have a roughly 50/50 population of born and new islanders, or those with and without the local language, or however you want to name us, I think that’s probably a small part of the picture.

Reading Mark Ryan Smith’s Literature of Shetland, I’m struck by how unbroken the canon of published dialect work is. After Walter Traill Dennison’s Orcadian Sketchbook, apart from the too-neglected Christina Costie and Robert Rendall, there’s little to nothing in Orkney until the 1980s, while equivalent work in Shetland is followed by much more original authorship all the way through the 20th century. The role of the New Shetlander in fostering the local literature seems crucial. Some folk I spoke to wondered whether the popular success of George Mackay Brown and Edwin Muir, who both chose English, and the latter of whom wrote against Scots, overshadowed local language writing and made us feel it wasn’t suitable for literary work. There was a question of whether a greater focus on Shetlanders writing for Shetlanders, rather than for a Central Belt audience, strengthened the tongue.

The dictionary work also occurred  earlier and more comprehensively in Shetland, and by language partisans, whereas Hugh Marwick’s Orkney Norn was focussed on recording rather than revitalising, and Gregor Lamb’s Orkney Wordbook came later on, with the more accessible Orkney Dictionary with Margaret Flaws only in the 1990s. John Graham’s work also came with a complete grammar of Shetland, which helps legitimise it, whereas the grammar notes in the Orkney Dictionary are little and late, and we still have no complete record of the grammar of the language. The same battles in the education system — some trying to stamp out the language, some seeking to preserve it — happened in both island groups, but perhaps Shetland had a larger arsenal to deploy.

None of which is to say that there’s not exciting and enlivening work happening in Orkney. Hansel Co-operative Press, so engaged in Shetland’s language work, has also included Orcadian writing in its publications, and now Abersee Press is driving local publishing forward. Our dictionary’s online now, Scottish PEN’s Many Voices project supported local writers with a workshop that I hear’s still going, and I see more Orcadian written down now than I did twenty years ago, even if I hear less. Following the success of Shetland’s Wir Midder Tongue Facebook group, the Orkney Reevlers group has spent over a year now recording local language, encouraging folk to use it without fear or shame, and so has produced an invaluable record and piece of revitalisation: thanks, moderators.

I am feart, though, as many who love minority languages are, even in Shetland which is likely the strongest bastion of a minority Germanic language in these islands. Faced with global media, changing populations, aye-bidan stigmatisation, chronic underfunding, generational shifts, and all the other muddle of a changing world, it’s not always easy to see how the tongue you love can survive — or how it can adapt to new circumstances while retaining as much of what you love as it can. One thing I think about often is that this may depend on reaching a good accommodation between Orkney and English speakers, just as the survival of small islands depends on born islanders accepting some change and difference and new islanders adapting to and respecting the island history. Alison Miller, in an essay for Abersee’s Speak for Yourself, wrote courageously about the strange split in Orkney literature, where Orkney language work tends to be confined to community events like Harvest Homes and weddings and Young Farmers concerts, and English language work tends to be confined to authorised literary events where, worryingly, Orkney speakers are often neither seen nor heard; she points out that an anti-Orkney language prejudice can still often be heard and puts up barriers. Of course I, half Orkney and half not, would say this: to live in a muddled identity you have to bring the parts of it together somehow. But I can’t help thinking that the only way the language survives is the way the islands survive: being a bit of both, with native speakers and learned speakers both allowing each other to speak without shame.

I want to see, and be part of, more events and more books in Orkney that celebrate the language, til we can build them up to rival the scale of our Shetland cousins. I also dream of a revitalisation of the dictionary work, now that we’re digital, to help develop fuller grammars and records of spellings and keeps the words circulating: dictionary work that keeps the language living rather than pins it to the page. After spending a month up in the lighthouse, I also hope for more collaboration and traffic between the different islands and their languages: meeting with members of the ForWirds team, we dreamed up at least a dozen fantasy projects, from bilingual events to interisland translations, that are just waiting on a bit of money and a bit of energy to push them forward. On we go.

The Stoneheart Problem

Poetry

Once there was a people whose hearts were made of stone. They looked in every way just like ordinary people, and their hearts worked just like ordinary fleshy hearts, except that the stone hearts made little grinding sounds as they pumped blood. That sound was enough to tell the stone-hearted people apart, if you listened closely.

For a long time – oh, hundreds of years – the stone-hearted people were euthanised at birth. Stories were told about the terrible things that stone-hearted people would do if they weren’t killed: the hidden bands of stone-hearted people who stole and ate children, the forest-raised escapees who could turn your own heart to stone with just one touch, the distant island where the stone-hearted people were building terrible weapons with which to wage another war on good, normal flesh.

But every so often a kindly or cowardly or guilty mother or father would, when they heard the grinding inside the chest of their newborn, hide their stone-hearted baby away. They learned to make special bindings from rabbit-fur that could dampen the sound of their child’s grinding heart, as long as they all remained careful. Usually, the hidden stone-hearted people would be found out sooner or later and got rid of. But, every so often, one hidden stone-hearted person would survive and, even more rarely, would find and recognise another stone-hearted person, and they would have hidden stone-hearted children of their own.

The families of stone-hearted people stayed hidden. They knew all too well their history, how whole villages of stone-hearted people were discovered and then removed from the world. Many families died. Many stone hearts were ground into dust (because the dust of a stone heart made a medicine that could cure any sickness, so it was said). But, again, some survived, and some became village healers, or teachers, or minor functionaries of local government, their stone hearts bound safely beneath their furs, and in that way, quietly at first, people began to say different things about the stone-hearted people.

Obviously they couldn’t feel as ordinary people could – but did that truly make them evil? What was ‘evil’, after all? Naturally, the sound of their stone hearts grinding was sickening to the soul, and doomed them to a poor excuse for a life, but weren’t they more worthy of pity than hatred? Of charity, even? Under the encouragement of the hidden stone-hearted, certain fashionable types among the wealthy classes began to set up foundations to study the phenomenon of geobiology, which led to charitable colonies where stone-hearted people were permitted to live under supervision, which led, in the fullness of time, to a certain kind of freedom for the stone-hearted people, and a certain kind of pride among those who called themselves Stonehearts.

It must be said there were some few among the stone-hearted people who thought they were changing their lot in a different way. Once or twice a laboratory was burned down, and there were bombings of government facilities which led to more than a few casualties. But most of the stone-hearted people looked down on these unfeeling rebels, and called for patience, fortitude and persuasion by example. After all, look at what their arguments had already won.

Thus, little by little, the stone-hearted people became part of ordinary society. Not its most welcome part, because the incessant grinding would set anyone’s teeth on edge, but a part nonetheless. Stonehearts made good farmhands, it was said: something about their greater muscle density, or their natural understanding of minerals in the soil. Their occasional outbursts and little rebellions were soon put down. One or two of them were capable of really quite fascinating art, and their peculiar outlook did sometimes offer an insight that a trained philosopher could make good use of. But they weren’t, of course, proper people. Their hearts were still made of stone.

Many stone-hearted people settled for this state of affairs. They had survived for hundreds of years and they weren’t about to risk that now, whatever the rebels might say. Some stone-hearted people did still argue that they deserved things like representation in government, or money to build better houses for their poor, but when they did they were met with the same old arguments: Your stone hearts can’t feel as ours can, so there’s no point wasting that on you. Your hearts don’t need what a real heart needs.

And so those same stone-hearted people, patient and strong, worked hard to become philosophers, lawyers and writers of books. They developed a wealth of scientific evidence that stone hearts and flesh hearts were functionally the same, with the same feelings and thoughts and needs. They developed complex legal arguments that showed that the rights of stone-hearted people were and had always been fundamental to the way the government worked. They wrote rich and deep books that questioned the very difference between stone and flesh, that undermined even the reality of a stone heart’s grinding sound. And the stone-hearted philosophers and lawyers and writers of books presented their case, and asked for things like representation in government and better houses for their poor, but when they did they were met with the same old arguments: Your stone hearts can’t feel as ours can, so there’s no point wasting that on you. Your hearts don’t need what a real heart needs.

‘But we’ve proved it!’ said the philosophers. ‘Extensive experiments have found no functional difference between a stone heart and a flesh heart.’

‘Well, I’m sure your science is very clever,’ came the reply, ‘but I’m not so stupid as to be conned into thinking there’s no difference when I can see it with my eyes and hear it with my ears.’

‘But we’ve proved it!’ said the lawyers. ‘The principles which guarantee your rights can in no logical way exclude our own.’

‘Well, I don’t understand your tricksy legal talk,’ came the reply, ‘but obviously different people deserve different things, and we all know the differences between us.’

‘But we’ve proved it!’ said the writers of books. ‘There is no understanding of reality which can coherently account for a true division between stone and flesh.’

‘Well, I don’t know about all that fancy thinking,’ came the reply, ‘but obviously there’s a difference, because I can hear your horrible heart grinding away right now.’

Once, a philosopher lost her patience. ‘I can’t talk about this with you any more!’ she said. ‘You’re not capable of listening to reason!’ She became angrier still, and then she was taken away, because stone-hearted people are very dangerous when they’re angry.

Ten years later, at the next Great Convocation on the Stoneheart Problem, the philosophers and lawyers and writers of books presented their newest and best arguments, even more refined and persuasive than they had been ten years before, and again they were rebuffed. Two philosophers and one lawyer were taken away this time, and there was much discussion in the salons of fashionable society as to whether a Convocation should be risked again. It was, though, scheduled for another ten years’ time.

It was shortly after then that I left that place, and, although ten years have passed and many more since, I cannot say for sure what happened next. I have heard mixed reports. Some have told me that a great Stoneheart thinker presented an argument – if not at the Third Convocation, then maybe at the Fourth or the Fifth – so convincing and so confounding that the whole Hall rose to its feet in applause and ushered in a new era there and then. Some have told me that all the philosophers and lawyers and writers of books gave up their arguments and joined the rebels in their secret caves, waging a bloody war. Some have told me that that war was lost and that the stone-hearted people were once again removed from the world. But, of all the people who have travelled from that place, most have simply told me one thing: that, all these years later, in their Great Convocations the stone-hearted people and the flesh-hearted people are talking still.

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Image by Steve Parker, licensed under Creative Commons BY 2.0.