Playing with words
Cathy Feeny enjoys the ebb and flow of language at Shetland’s literary festival, Wordplay 2008.
For writers Christine de Luca and Robert Alan Jamieson, reading at Wordplay, Shetland Arts’ annual literary festival, meant a hamefarin. Pacifist poet, Adrian Mitchell, on the other hand, was here for the first time, and told his audience that his excitement at staying in Scalloway was such that he couldn’t sleep. Poet Ruth Padel had, in a certain sense, visited Shetland before coming to Wordplay, because she had seen it in her dreams: “It is”, she said, “a place that everyone has a mental image of.”
Originally from Edinburgh, novelist Alison Flett now lives in Orkney. In her reading however, she described the islands from the point of view of an outsider: a jaded adolescent, who is shipped off there when the Edinburgh drug scene gets too hot for comfort. Initially convinced that the most exciting thing you can do in Orkney is put a goat down a chimney, the boy gradually discovers that islanders are capable of pretty wild times too. (A fact that can be verified by Glasgow-based novelist, Alan Bissett, who managed to arrive at his Sunday reading as fresh as a daisy, after a night that had started at Lerwick’s Lounge Bar, and ended in the wee small hours, at a hen party in somebody’s garage!)
Shetland had exercised its charms on novelist, Will Self, too, though of a rather more watery nature. A visit to the northern isles holds the aspect of a pilgrimage for Self, and he was in danger of running late for his afternoon spot because he’d insisted on spending the morning at Mousa broch, which he described as “one of my sacred sites. For me, comparable to the pyramids.” Self believes, in fact, that, along with “very, very pure solitude”, the presence of water is important for the imagination. It has been his custom to borrow a friend’s house in Orkney whilst writing the beginnings and endings of his books.
As is well known to Shetlanders, Self spent his honeymoon here. But it wasn’t an unalloyed romantic idyll. Having attempted to take a tranquil walk, only to encounter 50 breeding pairs of bonxies, Self hotly disputes the local claim that there is no danger of being hit by one. “They are called bonk-sies, after all,” he pointed out to the audience, “Not near-misses!”
Nevertheless, he keeps a map of Foula on the wall of the room in which he does his writing. It serves, he says, as a soothing antidote to the crack-heads and drug dealers he sees when he looks out of the window. And although he views himself as primarily an urban writer, this obsession with islands gradually led him to want to write something inspired by small island communities. The result was The Book of Dave, a novel with two strands of narrative, one of which is set on an island called Ham some centuries in the future. Ham is based on St. Kilda, but Self’s own image of St Kilda was formed by Michael Powell’s film, The Edge of the World, which was actually filmed in Foula. The creation of The Book of Dave, therefore, is a weird and circuitous story.
But that was what Wordplay 2008 was all about: stories. And how and why the writers wanted to tell them.
“In the nicest possible way, you manipulate your readers”, said marine biologist, Trevor Norton, who has dived all over the world and recounts his underwater adventures in three books. “You can make something interesting – make the reader read on – by means of the words you use to describe it.” Thus, the pasty-like, pinched shells of crabs lead Norton to refer to them as “predators in pie-crust”. And in his latest work, Under Water to Get Out of the Rain, rain itself, which simply delivers a miserable drenching when experienced on land, is transformed into “gleaming pearls” when witnessed from beneath the sea.
“The key thing is the musicality of the language”, maintained poet, Robert Alan Jamieson, who writes both in the Shetland dialect and in standard English, and who credits the unique nature of the dialect of his native Sandness to a 19th century teacher’s fierce resistance to an order to “stamp out the Scandinavian vowels”. And musical indeed was Jamieson’s reading of his poem “Atlantis”, in which he describes Shetland as “A laand wie waatir fir a boarder”.
Young Shetlanders were encouraged to enjoy and value the dialect, too, by “readin oot lood tagidder” with Christine de Luca, from her wonderful translation of Roald Dahl’s George’s Marvellous Medicine: Dodie’s Phenomenal Pheesik. Featuring a truly horrible Granny and a concoction made from, among other things, “da shavin sopp” and “da automatic wishin-machine pooder”, the story is, Christine says, pleasingly naughty, and full of the wild, onomatopoeic language that she believes the Shetland dialect is particularly good at. It shows children that the dialect isn’t old and stuffy, but modern and evolving.
It wasn’t just the bairns, though, who got to join in with performances. Comedy Store veteran and all-round nutcase, John Hegley, somehow managed to convince a roomful of grown-ups that it made sense for a man in the audience to be waving his spectacles in the air and shouting “Amoeba!” Constantly at play with language, via whacky topics, inventive juxtapositions and swift ad-libs – ‘Self-respect and self-admiration are two separate things,’ he informed a woman who applauded her own singing – Hegley, who has performed in a prison in Columbia, also got an, arguably rather easier, crowd chorusing “I’m-not sure-why-my-French-father-went-and-joined-the-American-National-Guard”, as part of a bizarre song about his family’s emigration to the United States.
“There’s room for comedy in poetry!” Hegley proclaimed, after reciting a poem which consisted of just the word “Me”, repeated dozens of times, prompting one member of the audience to ask him whether he had considered standing for political office. Hegley said it was an intelligent question, but declined to reply; so, should Gordon Brown decide to call it a day . . .
“The confinement of poetry to the printed page, to be read silently with unmoving lips, is repression”, stated poet, Adrian Mitchell, during his Sunday session. And it was undoubtedly the case that the prose as well as the poetry gained, in performance, extra vibrancy and humour.
Alan Bissett, who says he enjoys “rolling about in words”, vividly enacted, in a reading from his novel Boy Racers, the awkwardness of the young male protagonist, whose major ambition is to have a real girl wake up in bed with him and say “You’re so cool”. When a real girl does appear on the scene though, it is only to taunt him, and he ill-advisedly seeks to disprove her jibes, with tragi-comic consequences.
Tragi-comic too was Bissett’s depiction of the anti-hero of Death of a Ladies’ Man, who gets drunk after “fleeing from a failed orgy” and ends up confessing to his little niece that he can’t feel anything anymore. And there was touching pathos as well in Alison Flett’s rendition of her adolescent narrator, who finds himself looking after his father, who has mistakenly drunk some magic-mushroom tea. For the first time ever, the two of them have a proper blether.
Using words for comic effect is central to Will Self’s popularity, both on the printed page and on television, though when asked about his TV appearances Self was dismissive: “The term ‘television personality’ is an oxymoron, like ‘military intelligence’.” Self sees his fame, moreover, as something that has deprived him of the ability to eavesdrop on other people’s conversations, which he believes is vital to a writer. He even goes so far as to characterise the novel form as a “proto-internet chat-room”.
It was hard, however, to believe that Self had lost anything of his linguistic touch, as he regaled the crowd with a seemingly effortless eloquence. His wife is from Motherwell, he said, “Where men are men and windows are frightened.” Air travel, he argued, has made us “intolerably blasé” about the amazing fact that we have been transported to somewhere else. (To counteract this, Self makes a point of always walking both to and from airports.) For similar reasons, he abhors “officially sanctioned beauty spots”.
When it came to writing the futuristic sections of The Book of Dave, Self said, he was forced to confront something he has always found implausible about Star Trek, namely that wherever they fetched up in the entire universe the natives of the planet spoke Standard English. Self’s response was to create his own dialect, called Mockney, which he described as “rather like Norn, Norse and Old English”. It was as if, he said, having pared the language back to the bone he had “found a common root”.
Love was the common root in the first of the poems that Ruth Padel read to her audience. The exquisite love of the Bible’s “Song of Solomon”, juxtaposed with the love of a woman in contemporary Nazareth for a man who is taken away by soldiers. To say that it was moving is an understatement.
Padel is the great-great-granddaughter of Charles Darwin, and her audience had the immense privilege of being the first to hear some of the works in Darwin: A Life In Poems, a new volume, which she had delivered to her publisher just before getting on the plane to Shetland. Sensual and, at times, almost emotionally unbearable, it spans key events in Darwin’s life, including the heady moment when he first sees tropical vegetation and is “possessed by chlorophyll”, and his proposal to the woman who was to become his wife, for whom his theory, On the Origin of Species, is a death-blow to her hopes of being reunited with her beloved sister in heaven.
Creating an earthly paradise is poet, Adrien Mitchell’s, obsession. Rejecting Auden’s claim that “poetry makes nothing happen”, Mitchell illustrated in poem after poem that verse can, and must, galvanize us into making the world a better place: that “We’re human or we’re nothing”. An elder statesman of the peace movement, who lost two uncles in the First World War, in which his father was injured, Mitchell radiated kindness, hope and humanity. “All my poems are anti-war poems, and all love poems”, he said. He concluded his first session with an updated version of “Tell Me Lies about Vietnam”, with Afghanistan, Iraq, America and Britain making part of a list of other countries we have been lied to about.
Given his political convictions, it is unsurprising that Mitchell is deeply fond of the poet, artist and engraver, William Blake, who was also an abolitionist and a feminist, and despised the manacles that religion, monarchy and the state place upon the human spirit. The last session of Wordplay 2008 consisted of Mitchell talking about Blake’s life and reading from his poetry.
Throughout his life Blake saw visions. The first was as a child, when God surprised him by popping His head through the window. We must not be frightened of visions, said Mitchell. The great metaphorical vision that Blake cherished was that of the New Jerusalem, by which he meant a world built on the foundations of Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love. From the receptive faces in the audience, Mitchell said that he could tell that such a world is being built here, now, in Shetland. And it was true that at that moment a better way of doing things did seem suddenly possible.
Wordplay 2008 was a long journey. Longer than any travelled by the writers who came to Shetland to be a part of it, for their joy, wisdom, humour and compassion took those who listened to them into the boundless republic of the imagination. The knowledge that such a land is always there, that it cannot be bombed, annexed or invaded, is a source of comfort and strength. It is, as Christine de Luca puts it, a “hamewird licht”.