D is for Down South

For such a tiresomely Northern writer I have a startling confession to make: I spent nearly five years living Down South. In my defence I was not quite three when we decamped to the East Midlands and just gone seven when we returned to Drighlington having fit in a miserable eighteen months in North Cornwall in the meantime (don’t ask).

I don’t remember that much about it, and certainly if I look at a map of England now I’ll struggle to find the places we lived. Other than a lovely pool of floating lights for diwali in Leicester, what I mainly remember are differences in language. Not long after we moved to a village near Loughborough in the summer of 1981 we had a workman in one day and he called my Nana ‘mi duck’ whereas she of course called him ‘love’. Over his teabreak they had a good long chat about the different dialect words they used, and I listened with fascination. It was the first time I remember realising that there were different regional English varieties.

I knew there was BBC English (the proper one) and American English (a bad habit picked up from watching films) but without knowing the word ‘colloquial’ at that age I thought the way we spoke at home was what colloquial English sounded like all over the country. I don’t remember being an object of interest at school, however, until we moved to Cornwall.

Cornwall in red. The East Midlands is north east a bit, or maybe a lot.

Cornwall is as far away as you can get from West Yorkshire and still be in England. I had the unfortunate combination of being an intruder in established friendship groups, and having a noticeably different accent and unfamiliar vocabulary. I learnt to avoid the troublesome old-fashioned bits that were still current in Yorkshire but apparently not down there: thee and thou, the dost tha and hast tha constructions, saying five-and-twenty-past when telling the time (though I’ve reclaimed that one recently, I never stopped saying it that way in my head). The East Midlands workman notwithstanding, I was baffled as to why my classmates would pick up some of my perfectly normal utterances as catchphrases and use them out of context.

It took me years to untangle which bits of my ‘not proper’ vocabulary were general UK slang and which were Yorkshire dialect, in fact I went to university unaware that some of the words I used wouldn’t generally be understood. Which led to interesting conversations with Geordie OneMonkey when we first met, but that’s another story.

D could also have been for dogs, Drighlington, dancing, or detective stories but if you enjoyed this one you can always buy me a cuppa…


Not as fluent in English as I thought

Ask me where I’m from and I’ll say Yorkshire. I use a smattering of dialect, but not nearly as much as I used to, and unless you know me well you’re unlikely to hear the strongest version of my accent. I write in English, as you can see, and being a native speaker I thought I was pretty fluent. Until I started doing a deep edit of a couple of short stories during an online course.

The exercise was about getting specific. Cut the adverbs and use the most fitting verb. Ditch the abstract notions and make them concrete. Here’s what I wrote as my experience of working through the story I’m focusing on the most, which is set in the 1980s on a farm in the Yorkshire Dales:

I had (I think) almost nothing properly abstract and only one adverb (breathing heavily). I wondered how much is to do with this story being in a working class Yorkshire setting so I feel free to use more evocative and precise phrases like he clattered down the stairs, he brayed on the wall, the radio wittered. I’m going to investigate another story where I’ve used a more middle-class voice and see if I’ve used ‘standard English’ i.e. a smaller vocabulary and hence relied on adverbs more.

And you know what? I had.

As I suspected, the middle-class voice story I was thinking of has: talking quietly and earnestly, walked more slowly, ran quickly away, held tightly [several times!], coughed loudly. Not to mention a couple of ‘very’ and some abstract notions like feeling better, being kind or afraid. Wow.

Now, either I was having a bad day when I wrote the ‘middle-class’ story (and every subsequent time I’ve gone through it) or I have some kind of block when I’m writing in a posh voice.

I’ve talked about code-switching before (not least when I wrote about accent at No Writer Left Behind) but I always thought I was pretty good at it. My vowels sound northern (u and a are dead giveaways) but I didn’t think translating the odd word (something/anything/nothing instead of summat/owt/nowt, for instance) was seriously stifling my creativity. But all that is in spoken English, and thankfully I don’t get to go back through conversations at work to see how large a vocabulary I’ve used.

Written down, it’s there to go over later. Written down, it also has to follow rules about what gets written in books, ‘proper English’. Do I self-censor because I think words like clattered or brayed aren’t allowed in written English (slang? impolite? common?), or because I think they’re not universally understood (dialect? old-fashioned?), or because I think they’re not used by the kind of person with the voice I’m trying to write in?

It’s an interesting situation, it’s shown up my assumed fluency in switching and made me stop and think. Maybe what it comes down to is if I’m consciously writing ‘northern-normal’ – what to me is the default – then as long as I can imagine me or my Nana saying it, it’s fine, but for the middle-class, the BBC accent, I have to be able to imagine someone reading it from a book on Radio 4, and that imposes a whole mass of constraints which I’m clearly not comfortable with navigating.

I think my conclusion is that I should take my own repeated advice and write more in shades of my own voice.

David Crystal and English pronunciation

Yesterday afternoon OneMonkey and I enjoyed a highly entertaining talk at the Ilkley Literature Festival by David Crystal the well-known linguist. His latest book is Sounds Appealing: The Passionate Story of English Pronunciation, which covers a wide range of topics under that heading, so he concentrated his three-quarters of an hour on regional accents.

You probably know how interested I am in accents and attitudes to accents, and you may also have picked up that Geordie OneMonkey and I have quite different accents (slowly morphing into one another until, we often joke, one day we’ll both sound like we’re from Middlesborough) so we had plenty to talk about afterwards. As Prof Crystal said, accents and differences in pronunciation provoke strong feelings: there are two aspects to pronunciation, intelligibility (can people understand you?) and identity, and clearly it’s the identity aspect that stirs people up.

Because people move around so much or (as with OneMonkey and I) settle down with someone from a different place, it’s harder to pin down someone’s origins from their accents than it once was. However, apparently on average the accent changes every twenty-five miles in England (possibly in the whole UK, I forget which he said), which is fascinating. It also makes me wonder how ‘the Yorkshire accent’ can be seen as the third-nicest accent in the UK when Yorkshire is a massive place encompassing such different accents as Hull and Huddersfield (both of which I dislike), Sheffield, Whitby and Bradford. Do they all sound broadly similar to people from further afield, I wonder? In the same way that I say someone sounds southern, but unless they sound like Phil from Time Team (Somerset?) I’m unlikely to be more specific.

David Crystal obviously knows his stuff and was a witty and engaging speaker, full of anecdotes and facts, and not averse to doing impressions of the Queen. If his books are half as entertaining they should be well worth a read and I intend to seek some out at the library soon. I’m only amazed I’ve never read any of them before.

Embracing the Accent by JY Saville

This is a post I wrote this week for a new blog telling the stories of working class writers – I can recommend following it if you’re at all interested in writers or class experience.

Mine, inevitably, is about accent and dialect and is illustrated with a photo of my Nana and her sister.

No Writer Left Behind

Who would have thought the Daily Telegraph would play so prominent a role in the resurgence of my accent? It was during Louise Doughty’s year of writing a weekly column about short stories for them, when they ran a monthly writing competition and hosted a sort of discussion and exercise forum on their website. The Short Story Club had been running a couple of months already when someone (probably my mum) told me the Telegraph was having a writing competition. I entered, but only lurked on the fringes of the online club until May when I plucked up the courage to join in.

At school, we were warned that regional accents were looked down on. Anyone who wanted to get on in life needed to speak in standard English and preferably received pronunciation.

Speaking with an accent was akin to dubious sexual practices: try not to do it at all…

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Accents and globalisation part 3: voice recognition technology

OneMonkey raised the issue of voice recognition changing people’s accents and vocabulary, as they modify their speech in order to be recognised by their gadgets. As I don’t have a smart phone and can’t imagine giving voice commands to inanimate objects I don’t feel particularly qualified to comment. I only have a couple of bits of anecdotal evidence about people with strong accents not being understood by phones and tablets, and a particularly trying afternoon where I failed to make the HMRC automated phone service understand a single phrase I said (I suspect they do it on purpose – it is entirely possible that the big companies we see as tax-dodgers have tried to register properly but been thwarted by the byzantine complications of HMRC bureaucracy). None of the situations I’m thinking of resulted in anyone modifying their speech, they just gave up on voice recognition.

Presumably voice recognition on, say, phones is calibrated to a particular mode of speech and pre-programmed with a certain vocabulary. If you stray too far outside either of those it will struggle. Anyone who tries it and fails spectacularly is likely to give up on it as unsuitable, but I imagine if it mostly recognises what you say except for a few words you might try modifying those words until it could handle them. I modify written words, both vocabulary and sentence structure, for texting and tweeting. Naturally, I’m quite verbose (no need to be polite, I know you’ve noticed) and I often write a tweet the way I want to say it then rearrange, shorten, replace ‘placed’ with ‘put’ etc to get within my character limits. I’m not aware of it spilling over into other areas of life, however, and with written words I think it’s easier to keep separate vocabulary pots. In speech it’s easier to get into habits, and if you start pronouncing a word slightly differently you may find that becomes the way you unconsciously do it. The two areas I can think of it happening are where a) a particular accent pronounces the same word very differently from the standard (e.g. bus) or b) an accent doesn’t clearly distinguish between words that the standard does differentiate (e.g. look, luck). It would be fascinating to see how the widespread use of voice recognition changes natural speech over the next decade.

Accents and globalisation part 2

Further musings on the English language sparked off by listening to Bill Bryson’s Journeys in English last week. This time I want to talk about written vs spoken English in terms of standard use.

Towards the end of the programme they were discussing possible future directions for English. The rise of literacy was mentioned as having changed things somewhat – rather than passing things on verbally, people can read information. Written English has a standard form, a ‘correct’ form that we’re taught and tested on at school, and it’s relatively slow to change. It helps to homogenise the language and stamp out regional forms. The more people read standard English the more it influences the way they formulate their own sentences. The rise of the internet, at first glance, seemed to make that even more likely as international English-speakers read American newspaper websites or the BBC.

However, the more I thought about internet trends (because I know about them, and what the youth are up to. Oh yes) the more I thought about non-standard communication. I might generally write this blog in standard English as I do my usual translation from Yorkshire to proper English in my head, but I’m a lot less formal on sentence structure than I could be and plenty of people write blogs in their own dialects. Then there’s the recorded voice. In the same way that TV, films and radio have an influence on people’s accents and vocabulary, popular podcasts and vlogs will no doubt influence others, but primarily they allow the presenter’s accent to remain in place, maybe introducing their listeners to a new word or phrase here and there.

It remains to be seen how English changes and adapts over the next fifty or a hundred years but if nothing else we’ll have plenty of recordings of how people sounded in the early twenty-first century. I might even add to that myself and record a few more stories to add to the ones you can already listen to.

Accents and globalisation part 1

OneMonkey and I have been listening to Journeys in English this weekend courtesy of Leeds library’s audiobooks download service. It’s Bill Bryson’s BBC series from 20 years ago about the history, use and future of the English language. The time lapse since the series was made was interesting in itself, with the (then) new word cyberspace having already fallen out of favour for instance. The programme also talked about the fears of dialect loss, the ultra-standardisation of English (possibly along American lines, but that’s another story) from people moving around and being influenced by the TV etc. It generated a lot of discussion between us, we paused the thing so often it took about half an hour to listen to the final five minutes, but I’ll try and stick to a couple of topics over the next couple of posts.

One of those was how much our speech had changed in twenty years. We now live a few miles from where most of my family’s from, coincidentally directly across the valley from the hamlet one of my great-great-grandfathers left 160 years ago to find work in the slightly more built-up and industrial bit I’ve left behind. Nevertheless, twenty years of OneMonkey and I influencing each other’s accents, not to mention stints at 3 universities surrounded by staff and students from different backgrounds, and we both sound different from our teenage selves, particularly OneMonkey whose Geordie accent has all but gone as he’s slowed down and enunciated to allow non-native speakers a chance to understand him. He never uses the word ‘geet’ (here rendered for the well-spoken Yorkshireman as usual) whereas in 1997 it was in practically every sentence – for those unfamiliar with the word, imagine using it for emphasis as you would ‘dead’ i.e. dead good, dead late, dead hungry. My grilled bread sounds much more like ‘toe-st’ than ‘turst’, which not everyone will see as a bad thing.

Have a think about how your speech has changed in the last twenty years. You probably say tweeting and texting a lot more than you did then. Have you lost any dialect phrases? Learnt any new ones? Has your accent got stronger from moving back home, or weaker from moving away, or been influenced by your favourite TV programme? (Notice I didn’t say ‘TV show’ there but I did use TV not telly. I find myself saying movies instead of pictures sometimes…) Is the change gratifying, worrying, or just interesting? Feel free to answer some or all of these questions in the comments below. Or tweet me @JYSaville


Northern underclass

I know I’ve got a chip on my shoulder, but sometimes there’s nothing for it but to stand up and roar ‘I am northern and I am proud’. What’s got my goat today, I hear you ask (those of you who aren’t already tutting and turning away), well settle in with a mug of something hot and I’ll tell you.

The immediate trigger for incoherent rage (which hopefully has now subsided into coherence) was an article in The Guardian yesterday about trainee teachers from the north being told to tone down their accents in the classroom. Now, the scientifically trained bit of my brain is jumping up and down about small sample size and all the rest of it (really it doesn’t seem much better than anecdotal evidence), but for today’s purposes it doesn’t matter exactly how many people this happened to, or whether it was more prevalent with certain accents than others. The point is that any headteacher saw fit to tell anyone that their accent was not fit for a teaching role.

During a lengthy rant in the pub this week, Mark the artist made the point that (northern) working class culture is being eroded (Paul Mason wrote an article in The Guardian on similar lines not long ago) – imagine, he said, going back in time to somewhere the British colonised long ago and saying don’t worry about it all dying out, it’s called globalisation and progress. Well at the time they probably did say that but among the liberal intelligentsia now that would be unthinkable, traditions and dying languages need preserving at all costs. And yet, this doesn’t seem to extend to regional accents or dialects within Britain.

Those of you who’ve been around here a while will know of my fondness for and interest in accents (though not necessarily the written rendering of them). Since pretty much everyone I know is northern (or Scottish) I mostly talk about the north in relation to this but I’m all for retaining regional accents regardless of where you’re from. I had my first 2 or 3 years of school down south (East Midlands then Cornwall) and not surprisingly I got laughed at for my accent, and particularly for bits of dialect I didn’t even know were dialect. That drove part of my accent and dialect use away, but what was even worse was returning to Yorkshire and being told by teachers that, to paraphrase, well-educated young ladies did not have Yorkshire accents. Thankfully I have a strong rebellious streak, and my determination to hang onto my accent was helped by my Grandma warning me against sounding like sister number 2 (who worked in a mill, when there were still mills to work in).

What does it say to working class kids if all the teachers sound accentless and posh? It says people like you do not become teachers. I’m one of those in-betweeners, working class family with a middle class education and I still find comfort when I go into a meeting at the day job and find some academic or senior manager with a noticeable accent, it means I’m not automatically going to ruin my credibility by opening my mouth.

It might seem like a small thing, but accents are family-bonding, they’re how you show you belong, and they’re part of our heritage and who we are. To demand that someone gives that up to conform to a centralised ideal of the perfect teacher, and in the process set themselves apart from the pupils they’re supposed to be a role model for is cruel and pointless. I haven’t even got onto the spelling and grammar tests that are confusing for certain regions (I think Michael Rosen had a mention of the differing uses of ‘until’ recently) but I think I should get back to enjoying my day off and listening to rock n roll.


Becoming a Geordie by long proximity

Cover of Larn Yersel' Geordie by Scott Dobson

An invaluable guide. Well, quite entertaining anyway.

A few years ago in a post about rendering accent in writing, I mentioned that after 10 years of living among Geordies I’d attempted to write a Geordie character, only for OneMonkey to recoil in horror at my ineptitude. Well, a couple of weeks ago I had another go (completely different story, and characters) and this one passed muster. I’m not saying it would fool a native, just that OneMonkey judged it bearable.

I had a feeling I might do better this time, I can now read and interpret the whole of the 1960s educational pamphlet Larn Yersel’ Geordie, even if I can’t say most of it out loud. I have understood each one of OneMonkey’s uncles in normal conversation, and barely notice that his dad speaks a completely different dialect from me. Despite living back in West Yorkshire (‘the South’ as OneMonkey calls it) for years, I appear to be morphing slowly into a North East native, scoring 100% on the Chronicle’s How Geordie Are You? quiz (though I’m not convinced of its scientific accuracy…) and recognising more than half of these You know you’re a Geordie when… signs in myself. Time to go recalibrate myself with some Yorkshire dialect poems.

An audio experiment: the author reads flash

For no particular reason other than it’s a bank holiday weekend and I’ve had no pressing concerns (read that as: I’ve nearly finished writing a novella and I’m putting off the serious business of the culmination of ideas), I’ve recorded a clip of myself reading Not Such a Cold Fish, which you can access here:

There’s no deep reason why I chose that story. It’s short, the after dinner mint at the end of the banquet that is The Little Book of Northern Women (the only part of that collection that was already available elsewhere), and as this post title suggests, this was something of an experiment. A couple of years ago I had concerns about trying an audio version of one of my fantasy stories (admittedly it didn’t come from a collection with the word Northern in the title) but OneMonkey has persuaded me to stop doing bad impressions of the Queen and embrace my normal speaking voice. He described an earlier take as sounding like a parody of Alan Bennett. Sometimes you just can’t win.

I had vaguely thought of adding audio tasters of various stories here, and I’d be interested to know what anyone thinks of that. In these multi-tasking times you wouldn’t even have to read the first page to decide whether you want to continue; I (or possibly OneMonkey if a Geordie accent works better) could read it for you while you’re clicking on tins of beans at an online supermarket or flicking through your holiday snaps.

Choosing books with a Yorkshire theme

As I’ve said many times before: so many books, so little time. Leaving aside for the moment the deeper question of why I’m adding to the problem by publishing my own, the main question is how to narrow the field. A slightly arbitrary and parochial way of doing it is to seek out books with some relevance to where you live, or were born, or spent the happiest years of your life, or… You get the idea.

Regular readers will have spotted that I’m a proud Yorkshireman (Yorkshirewoman just doesn’t sound right) so what better way to navigate through the overcrowded bibliographic waters than to look for books with a Yorkshire connection.

Friend T has assisted on this front several times, introducing me to the delights of AS Byatt via Possession (“you’ll like it, it’s partly set in Whitby”), and Kate Atkinson via Behind the Scenes at the Museum (read my review here). I mentioned these gifts on Twitter recently and Pamela Hartshorne pointed out this website of York authors which I’ll need to look into further. (Incidentally, has anyone done a similar site for Bradford yet?)

Please don’t imagine that I only ever read books with some connection to the county of my birth; that would just be weird. However, in the packed genre of crime for example, I like a helping hand, a nudge in some direction because there are just so many books out there to choose from, and I’m not alone in this. My mum started reading Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe novels because of their Yorkshire setting, and I recently started her off on Peter Robinson’s books for the same reason.

As a child I had a couple of bad experiences of Yorkshire-related works, but thankfully it didn’t put me off. I remember The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett being recommended as it was set in Yorkshire but I can’t remember if I got to the end. I seem to recall (bearing in mind I haven’t touched it in twenty-five years or more) Yorkshire dialect written in a way that almost seemed like a caricature, and only for characters you were supposed to look down on (see my earlier post on written dialect). Jane Eyre (the Brontes usually being classed as Yorkshire writers) was a book we had to read at school, and I know I didn’t get very far with that, in fact I didn’t know what happened after Jane’s friend dies of TB, till I looked up the plot online this evening. Some of Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next books make a bit more sense now.

Even now, choosing a book on this basis isn’t a guarantee of success (see my reviews of Saville and Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell) but if you don’t know where next to turn in your quest for literary satisfaction, it’s a way of taking a step in a new direction. You might find some surprising gems.

Oh, and Happy Yorkshire Day.

Bradford based fantasy – I’m not alone

Either I’ve found a kindred spirit or lost some of my uniqueness this week, depending how you look at it. There is someone else out there writing speculative fiction set in Bradford (no, really). Elizabeth Hopkinson writes fantasy rather than sci-fi, and some of her Bradford-based stories have been published whereas mine tend to be either doing the rounds or sitting in the unfinished pile, so in some sense she’s leading the way – I can rest easier knowing that Bradford already has a purple-headed pin on the speculative fiction map and isn’t relying solely on the fate of Self-aware and Living in Bradford (my near-future AI homage to Julie Christie’s performance in Billy Liar). A Short History of the Dream Library, a story I heard Elizabeth read this week, won the James White Award in 2005 and was in Interzone; it’s comic fantasy explicitly set in Bradford, whereas some of her other work is less comic and less explicit in its setting (but with much inspiration from the city and its buildings).

I had two revelations, listening to Elizabeth Hopkinson read. One was that all may not be lost as far as me doing an audio version of The Whitewing Fallen goes: hearing someone with a similar accent stand and read in front of an audience was quite reassuring, though I’ve still got to get round the fact that I have a character who in my head sounds like a Tudor Glenn Danzig. The other was that I’ve been reading Robert Rankin books for years, and I don’t think I even realised Brentford was a real place for a while, and even when I did, I assumed the streets etc were mostly made up – you can be as parochial as you like and as long as there’s enough of a feeling of solidity for your readers to imagine the setting, it doesn’t matter if they’ve never heard of it, so in theory I could take a leaf out of Rankin’s book and set every piece of speculative fiction I write in future in and around Bradford with no alienating effects on the potential readership.

On that cheering (or possibly horrifying) note, I’ll get back to slaving away over a hot keyboard.

Tidying some loose ends

I’m sorting out, this weekend. Tidying up, replying to overlooked emails, filing pieces of paper (and electronic equivalents). Last time I did this, I discovered the anthology some of my twitter fiction is in had been for sale on Amazon for a while without me noticing. This time I was reminded of something I meant to mention here but I don’t think I did – it was a most favourable review of said anthology, which brightened up my day.

I also don’t think I’ve mentioned that a reasonably long (9500 words or thereabouts) fantasy story of mine should be coming out at Strange, Weird and Wonderful in half a year or so, which I’m quite excited about. There has been a whisper of the possibility of an audio version – for all my talk of the well-spoken Yorkshireman, I have to say I’m not one of them, and I wonder if such stately prose (at least, it was intended that way) would survive my verbal mangling. Something to ponder over the coming months. The story was (though the location is never explicitly mentioned) set vaguely in the New Forest and Wales, though I’m not sure that has much bearing.

The other thing to mention is of course Neil Gaiman’s fantastic, oh so Gaimanesque episode of Doctor Who, which I saw on the iplayer. I’d been looking forward to it ever since I saw it mentioned in his journal (yes, I know, I really am beyond help), and I’m delighted to say I wasn’t in the least bit disappointed. Someone asked me earlier this week what I wanted to do with my life, and the answer that sprang forth before I’d quite got my truth-filters in place was that I’d like to be Neil Gaiman. Not literally, you understand, but I wouldn’t mind following in his literary footsteps. Back to the story-crafting…

John Wyndham completist

Having read The Kraken Wakes, The Day of the Triffids, The Chrysalids and The Midwich Cuckoos as a teenager, and heard (in the wrong order, due to repeats) Trouble With Lichen on BBC7 I thought I’d exhausted the John Wyndham back catalogue, so I was pleasantly surprised to spot 2 more books in the library the other week. The one I read first was Chocky, which the back cover describes as ‘a sinister tale of manipulation and experimentation from afar’, though I don’t think there’s anything particularly sinister about it. It’s classic British sci-fi, told in the first person by a middle-aged man (David Gore) with wry humour and detachment.

David’s eleven year old son Matthew seems to have an imaginary friend called Chocky, but as Chocky doesn’t cause as much trouble as Matthew’s younger sister’s imaginary friend did, David and his wife aren’t too concerned at first even though he seems a bit old for that sort of thing. Chocky’s influence causes Matthew to ask unusually deep questions for a boy his age, perplexing his parents and exasperating his teachers. Matthew and Chocky argue about the backward nature of Earth, from the illogical calendar to the peculiarities of two genders and the inefficiency of road vehicles. When David eventually introduces Matthew to a psychiatrist friend of his, the evidence seems to point to there being more to it than a young boy’s imagination.

This short novel is strong on character (I particularly liked the portrayal of David’s sisters-in-law and their attitude to Matthew having being adopted rather than born into their family) but I don’t think it fully explores the potential of Chocky’s presence; beyond some temporarily uncomfortable publicity for David’s family there seem to be few consequences. There is a warning of what we’re doing to the planet (and this from a book published in 1968) and a warning about our oil-dependence, but ultimately the message is hope, progress and the potential of science. If you’ve read and enjoyed other John Wyndham novels you’ll probably enjoy Chocky, but it’s certainly not his best.

The other book, apparently only recently uncovered and published (though written back in about 1949) is Plan for Chaos. Imagine The Boys From Brazil written by Raymond Chandler and you start to get the gist. Our intrepid hero Johnny Farthing, photo-journalist for an American magazine, spots a facial similarity between a couple of recent suicides (which could be seen as murders, if you have a suspicious mind) and his cousin Freda, and pesters his editor into letting him investigate with a view to writing an article. When Freda disappears and Johnny is mistaken for someone who was seen near her apartment, the investigation becomes personal, and not even being warned off by the government stops Johnny from getting mixed up in a surreal nightmare he doesn’t want to believe is real.

Apparently one of the reasons Plan for Chaos remained unpublished was Wyndham’s problems with a believable American voice. He gives Johnny such a complicated American-British-Scandinavian background to try and account for it, and has other characters call him Limey or Pommy depending where they’re from, or comment that Johnny sounds almost like he was learning to speak American, and to be honest I quite enjoyed that as a running gag. I had a friend at university who was Canadian with one British parent, she’d spent about five years in the north of England and to us she sounded recognisably North American, whereas apparently in Canada they thought she was British, so I can believe Johnny’s hybrid accent. Possibly it’s just that the ‘American accent’ I read American characters with in my head is so bad that it ties up beautifully with John Wyndham’s attempt. Plan for Chaos is a good book as long as you don’t mind the mangled American, sliding from hard-boiled detective to sci-fi thriller as the novel progresses. The usual Wyndham wry humour is there in abundance and it’s a genuinely gripping read.

A kind of writing

A belated attempt to catch up on some of my literary heritage brought me to my mum’s battered old copy of Stan Barstow’s 1960 novel A Kind of Loving, which the blurb on the back claims is ‘told in the racy vernacular of the West Riding of Yorkshire’ – it’s a first person narrative, from the point of view of a twenty year old man in the late 1950s. There’s not too much in the way of trying to spell the accent, thankfully, he mainly uses the rhythm of speech, phrase patterns and dialect (there were a couple of words I didn’t recognise, but it’s not like you can look them up in a dictionary). The main thing that irritated me is that for a while he seemed to be deliberately trying to use a different slang word for ‘girl’ in every sentence.

The book gets off to a slow start, with long descriptions of the people and places in Vic Brown’s life, and a lot of dialogue which was fun to read and true to life (I recognised a few relatives and old neighbours of mine at Vic’s sister’s wedding) but not much to do with the story, or even essential to the background. All this dialogue, like the hundred and one words for ‘girl’, seemed self-indulgent; he’d put it in because he could, and because he wanted to show us that he’d captured his surroundings accurately. The characters are well-rounded shades of grey rather than straightforwardly good or bad, and Vic particularly was well-drawn and believable.

Once the story gets going, of Vic’s on-off relationship with Ingrid, his changing view of his newly-married sister, run-ins with Ingrid’s manipulative mother and restlessness at work, it’s well-paced and draws you along to the end. The book was made into a film quite early on (which I’ve never seen so I don’t know how closely they’re related), and I would say that if you enjoyed films like that, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, or even Alfie (the original, obviously) then this book might be right up your street.

Flummoxed beyond words

Following on from my earlier post on accents (and if you haven’t read that, this might not make much sense)…

Reginald Hill has his Yorkshire detective Dalziel saying ‘thyself’ from time to time, but I’m willing to bet that that character would pronounce it, in his own phonetic rendering, as ‘thissenn’ (that’s how I say it), so why the standard English spelling? The assumption here would be that most people don’t use the word so wouldn’t recognise it in disguise and wouldn’t understand what he was getting at. At least there was a standard English spelling to fall back on; most dialect words are rarely written down because (unless you’re north of the border, where Scots is championed as a separate language) we’re all taught to use standard English when we write, no matter what words we use when we speak (and at my school and probably many others we were taught not to speak dialect in public in case anyone thought we were thick…). Sadly, fewer people seem to be speaking them, too.

Previously I gave OneMonkey’s example of “going home” becoming “gan’n yem” (in my standard rendering into well-spoken Yorkshire. Which probably differs widely across the county, but never mind). You could see that as a stretching of the standard English words by a strong accent, but if you’re interested in languages like OneMonkey, and possess a 1919 textbook on Anglo-Saxon as he does (I know, not that likely, but stay with me) you’ll notice that what’s actually going on is that Geordies have a better grasp of Anglo-Saxon than the rest of us. So just as the Yorkshire use of thee, thou and thy (however you want to pronounce them) harks back to a bygone age in the national tongue, the Geordie use of a whole long list of words reaches even further back: in Anglo-Saxon gan=go, ham=home (OneMonkey points out that “yem” as I’ve written it could have had “h” before it), bearn=child, wif=woman. The more you look, the more similarities you find. And in fact OneMonkey has just pointed me at this informative webpage on the origins of Geordie.

I don’t think I’d write dialect in any story, partly because I wouldn’t know how to spell it (because I’m unlikely to have seen it written down, and because of that difficulty I mentioned last time about phonetic spellings) and partly because I’ve been conditioned to write in ‘proper’ English. Both OneMonkey and I are concerned about the loss of accents and dialect though, and our accents have slowly begun to meld together (presumably they’ll meet at Middlesborough in a couple of years): dialect is the key to our distinct vocal identities. Though we both feel slightly self-conscious using dialect aloud after years of suppression for the sake of communication with outsiders, we’re trying to reclaim it in a small way; at least with no children we don’t have to decide on those important things like whether a stream is really a beck or a burn.

When inspiration strikes

It’s been a couple of months now I think since I wrote anything new, and in the meantime I haven’t even done much redrafting of old stories. However, inspired by the idea of the collaboration with Mark, or possibly due to watching two episodes of Doctor Who on the iplayer last night (I really don’t do myself any favours, image-wise, do I?) I woke up this morning with plump and healthy flesh on the bones of a story I’d thought up a few months ago. It’s Bradford-based science fiction, which is not all that common as far as I know, and will no doubt cause Big Brother as much hilarity when I tell him as it did the last time I mentioned the idea. Needless to say I won’t be using accents in the dialogue.

Northern wit

A pet hate of mine, or rather a regular cause of exasperated fuming, is the bizarre and unnecessary rendering of accents into written form. I first encountered this as a child, reading the James Herriot vet books after I’d seen some episodes of All Creatures Great and Small on TV. I read the books in a Yorkshire accent, at that age I doubt I could have read them in any other, but there were always speeches I couldn’t understand, strange spellings and a confusing trait of putting t’ before most words. When it was eventually pointed out to me that this t’ was supposed to represent the swallowed “the” that I’d naturally been using since I first learned to speak, I was puzzled: reading “t’kitchen” made me say something in my head that sounded like “to kitchen”, hence the confusion. And I wasn’t convinced anyone from outside Yorkshire would say it right from that rendering, as it’s a hard one to learn. Why not just write “the kitchen”, so everyone understands what’s meant, and if they want to (or have to) say it in the Yorkshire accent they know the character has, that’s an added bonus?

The trigger for my fumes today was one of Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe novels, the first one I’ve read, though I watched a couple of TV episodes a while ago. The novel as a whole was well worth it, more subtly and engagingly written than a lot of detective stories, but gripping throughout, despite being easily four times the length of an Agatha Christie or a Raymond Chandler. The slight niggle for me was the occasional and inconsistent rendering of accents. The book’s set in Yorkshire, and let’s face it it’s still my native tongue (a thicker accent and a lot more dialect gets used in my head than would ever emerge from my over-educated mouth these days) so I was reading all the characters (t’characters?) in Yorkshire anyway, except the ones introduced from the start as from London, Wales, Scotland, Manchester. Actually I probably read the ones from London and Manchester that way too. But then we get to Dalziel.

Andy Dalziel is rough, crude, working class, full of choice phrases you wouldn’t want your maiden aunt to overhear. Fine, but why make him almost the only character to be entirely written in mangled English? For a native, some of the spelling and phrasing results in ludicrous sentences, and that is the main problem – writing phonetically means you have a particular readers’ accent in mind. Surely the whole point you’re making is that people with different accents pronounce the same words differently – why should that change if you write “luv” rather than “love”? (Both of which I pronounce the same anyway)

Back when I was younger and less jaded, and was more prepared to read a novel for its plot when the writing wasn’t that great, I read quite a few of Ben Elton’s. He’s particularly fond of denoting differences in background (because when it comes down to it, accent and class are still solidly linked – the stronger the one, the lower the other, so the assumption goes) by the spelling of a popular swear-word (I can’t be bothered to find out if wordpress has filters…). So northerners say “fook”, southerners say “fack”, and posh southerners say “fark”. Now, that might work in Ben Elton’s accent, I couldn’t say, but for me (and indeed Geordie OneMonkey), “fook” for whatever reason rhymes with Pook from the phrase “Puck of Pook’s Hill”, whereas I think the intention was a word that rhymes with Puck. Even among northerners there’s no uniformity in pronunciation of that double-o; some Lancashire accents rhyme “look” with how I’d say “Luke”, whereas OneMonkey and I rhyme it with “luck”, for me, “book” and “cook” have the same sound as “look”, but OneMonkey rhymes “book” with something closer to “Luke” than “look” while not being either (I asked him how he said “cook” and he replied with a straight face “make my dinner”. But in a Geordie accent, obviously.) Is Ben Elton assuming that his readership will all have middle-class middle-England non-accents to start with? Or that we might need a bit of a hint on how people speak, beyond “she was from Manchester”? Presumably this is related to the London-centricity of the media, which no doubt I’ll get back to some other time.

If it wasn’t for Reginald Hill (Cumbrian by birth I believe) I’d wonder if it was all a way of poking fun at the common little northerners; Ben Elton’s facking and farking notwithstanding, it’s usually northern accents (including Scottish varieties) that produce the mangled English. Even in the Dalziel and Pascoe novel, a Welsh character was written in standard English but we were told she had a distinctive Celtic lilt, whereas a Scot was given similar treatment to Dalziel himself. Is that just because we’re used to northern accents being rendered this way, whereas there are no standard spellings for the pronunciation of English in South Wales?

When I write, and I haven’t specified a different origin (not that I do that very often. I tried a Geordie character once, foolishly thinking that ten years of close contact had given me an ear for patterns of speech; it made OneMonkey’s hair stand on end), my natural baseline is what I think of as “well-spoken Yorkshire”. Noticeably northern, but consciously or unconsciously modified by the character into a form less likely to make other people assume they’re stupid. It’s partly laziness on my part, and partly a desire to make the dialogue sound natural. I like to think that any reader could read it in their own default accent and not notice any difference; of course that’s not going to be universally true but it’s a nice aim. If I wrote that a Scottish character said they were from “Glasgae” (as so often happens in books), I’d read that back as (and here I write phonetically for well-spoken Yorkshire) Glaz-gay, whereas someone further south may well read it as Glars-geh. Whereas if I just said the man was from Glasgow and had a reasonably strong accent, everyone would get the right idea. Does it even matter if they read the dialogue in the right accent?

OneMonkey commented earlier that if you wrote “I’m going home” in a book, a Geordie would probably read those words in standard English but with an accent, whereas if they were to announce in person that they were going home, they may well use a phrase that I would have to render for the well-spoken Yorkshireman as “gan’n yem”. Which begs the question: where does accent end and dialect begin? But I think that might have to be answered another day.