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.