Incontrovertibly I grew up where
no rivers ran, no ocean rolled.
Confined by brown brick, soaked in rain
only the crowds and traffic
flowed from football games
factories and unemployment lines.
Arguing there must be more than
surfaces and rules and repetition,
the clock strikes and the naked lady
rewinds the myth. She hides beneath her hair.
Enter Peeping Tom. Try too hard to see,
eyes get blasted, here in Coventry.
Traveling through Siberia, on the train, in winter. I heard this story:
There are places in Siberia that are so cold that if you step outside and open your mouth, your teeth will crack. As the first cold snap comes, if you stand on one bank of the river, and call across to the other, your words will freeze in the air and be trapped midstream. Only when the spring comes will they be free to move again, though by then their audience is gone. Mixed with all the other words that were spoken and frozen they go swirling down stream, confused, confusing, looking for someone to hear them.
This is how I thought of the sequence: disembodied voices, swirling, caught by the geographical space of Coventry. Like those Siberian conversations, they muddle together as the sequence progresses. Is it Tom or Leofric speaking? Who is this narrator who crops up occasionally, who is not any of the characters? As the second section progresses, it trails off, starts to repeat itself, as if the voices are being blown away, as if the speakers are trying to get the message correct, but only succeeding in making it more muddled.
A question of style
I was born in the shadows of the Second World War.
A new cathedral, growing from the rubble
beside the gutted, blackened nightmare of the old.
The echo of the bombers' drone was fading,
and veterans, sipping cups of tea,
hid horror in tall stories. ‘Dave Smith
ran up the beach at Anzio.’
‘A twenty-five in either hand?’
‘Firing as he ran!’ ‘And get this.
Louie fell without a parachute, hit the phone wires,
bounced and landed in a hay-rick, breaking every bone.’
‘But living?’ ‘In a fashion.’
While I was writing this I read a a throw away comment in an article which described the ‘accessibility' of Seamus Heaney’s poetry as 'Insulting'.
The second part of Lady Godiva and Me is set after the second world war, in a world I remember growing up in. I wanted to write about my parents' generation, and to honour what I remembered as their best qualities. It’s easy to revile the patriarchal discourse of the 1950s, and to forget that gender assumptions worked both ways. I had met men who went to war, in both 1914-18 and 1940-45. I knew they had seen and done things, believing it was their duty, that were beyond my ability to understand.
I remember men who worked foul jobs in car factories, a world away from today’s assumptions about careers and 'self–fulfillment' and 'self-expression', because they had families and they lived by the mantra of 'a roof over their heads, clothes on their backs, food on the table.' True, I also worked in pubs and saw them drink and gamble and try to avoid going home. I watched marriages where there seemed no warmth at all and wondered how they ever got close enough to conceive their children. I saw women riding roughshod over men too tired to fight and men treat their wives like un-hired help. I saw symbiotic relationships where the world was divided into His jobs and Her jobs so strictly it was hard to believe.
So I knew enough to avoid romanticising them, but I wanted to honour what I perceived as being worthy of respect.
And that left me with a problem of style.
The first poem I remember being aware of is Kipling’s Three Part Song. Grandfather read it for a dialect archive, and I have a digital copy of his crackly voice speaking in what is supposed to be broad Sussex. For me it has the same beauty as Kavanagh’s 'Kerr’s Ass’, a poetry rising out of specific time and place. Place names that are their own poetries. A sense of self, tethered to landscape, given depth and resilience by history.
My father and his family, who were Irish, were Robert Service fans. And I can still recite The Shooting of Dan McGrew from memory.
But I couldn’t write the type of poetry these people read. Kipling and Service won’t do as models. But I didn’t see the point in writing it in something that would be 'modern' and unreadable to the people I was writing about.
Since this was about home, then one other home is traditional music. I came back to poetry on the back of the ballads. If each section of lady g is supposed to be a voice speaking, then ballad form seemed a natural choice. The surface would not be opaque, and the artistry would be in the architecture of the sequence. Like the Sherbourne, bubbling away underground, you can follow it if you’re so inclined.
If you think that telling stories in a way that can be followed is an insult to the reader, then I have nothing polite to say.
Making historical characters sound historical
Robert Graves claimed that in his novel about the wife of Milton, he used no words that were not in current usage when his characters were alive.
It’s a splendid Gravesian maneuver. Who’s going to sit there with the OED and check every word? And even if you did, and found some evidence to challenge his claim, I suspect Graves’ ghost would come back and argue that the OED was wrong and he knew better. This was the man who delighted in proving that the details in the I Claudius novels could all be substantiated.
So how do historical characters speak? If you’re really worried about this then, since we know both Godgifu and Leofric spoke Old English, it would be theoretically possible to write their dialogue in that language. Except my OE grammar isn’t that good. But even if it was, who else would read it? And what would be the point?
There are popular routes to follow. Not OE, ME or NE but PHS-‘Pseudo Historical speak’. Throw in some thee and thous, a few God Wot’s and By our Lady’s, and someone somewhere will think you’re recreating the sound of a person in the past talking.
My problem is I wouldn’t be that someone. If you read any Middle English, or even just Shakespeare, neither sounds like PHS. And there’s a pedantic presence (come to think of it, he looks a bit like Graves), that reaches for the OED, or something like Crystal’s 'Shakespeare’s Words’ and wants to point out that thee and thou not only have grammatical meanings, but also shades of social meaning, and most 'pseudo-historical' misses both.
The other PHS move is to rupture the syntax into a ghost of the King James Bible: 'God’s Bones and teeth and toenails, knowest thou not, thou fiend most foul, Lady Digberry my good lady is to be my affianced, by our Lady?'
Even Joyce, in the Oxen of the Sun, mangles the ME bits. Graves was a stickler for detail. But even he doesn't make Claudius speak English in Latin word order.
No, the solution I think is to ignore the question. Or to say, you don't even bother trying. Since I am writing in Modern English (NE), my character will sound like they are speaking naturally in Modern English. If Peeping Tom swore in ME, then he can swear in NE. But he’ll swear like a modern person, not by god’s bits.
The historical background, where possible, functional, or necessary, will be accurate.
I know this place but wouldn't call it mine
Mine is the space between the rising and the falling foot.
From 'Talking Nothing to the Stone'
Derrida talks about those moments of rupture when it’s suddenly possible to think about the unthought or the unthinkable… those moments when an issue becomes visible.
For me Race was invisible when I was growing up but I can pinpoint the moment when it suddenly reared its ugly head. I grew up surrounded by Irish voices. At home, at school, at mass. I knew I wasn’t Irish. I don’t even think it occurred to me as odd that my parents were paying taxes to a government that was using their money to pay soldiers to go hassle relatives in Belfast.
But sometime in the seventies, during ‘the Troubles’ there was talk of 'Sending the Irish Home'. I don’t remember if some tub-thumping politician seriously suggested this or it was just one of those stories that circulate, prefixed with 'They say…' But I do remember one evening my dad mentioning it. He was dismissive, it was obviously a stupid idea. (One of the great beauties of England at that time was that ethnic cleansing could be dismissed as an obviously stupid idea. It wouldn’t be long before such ideas were touted in other countries, about other ethnic groups, and the stupidity of the idea was lost in the actual barbarity of its attempt.)
But that was the point of rupture.
I grew up in Coventry, I was born there. Home was a specific house beside a very specific park. When I wasn’t thinking, I spoke with a west midlands accent. But if they sent my dad home, would my mum (who was English) be allowed to go with him? And if she didn’t (as if she wouldn’t) what would happen to my sister and me? If we went to Ireland we’d be foreigners, but then if they were sending ‘foreigners and their children’ ‘home’ were we actually native to England…?????
Where exactly, if anywhere, did we belong?
The rumour died away. The question remains.
The Joys of (West Midlands) Slang (dictionaries)
Or, what happened when I set out to be authentically local in my dialect....
Slang dictionaries have a seductive subversive irresponsibility. Some, especially Australian ones, are dangerously funny and achieve a ribald poetry; others like the canting dictionaries of the Renaissance are relics of an alternative universe peopled by rufflers and upright men, jarkmen, bawdy baskets, doxies and kinching morts .
So I wallowed in Chambers New Dictionary of Slang; The 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue and some Tudor and early Stuart 'Rogues Literature' surfacing occasionally to cross check words in the OED or Brewer’s. It’s far too enjoyable to call research.
I’ve come to the unexceptional conclusion that at some stage in the history of English almost every common word has been press ganged from its standard usage to do service as a term for something completely different. In fact, in the wrong place and time, the most innocuous sounding phrase would probably be interpreted as obscene or as evidence of membership of some kind of illegal or secret society.
But while I enjoy slang dictionaries, I remain sceptical. Even the huge Chambers leaves out terms I grew up with. How is standard usage of a slang term established? How many people have to use it and for how long before it gets recorded?
Soon after I came to Australia I read an article in the travel section of a national newspaper which purported to be the results of the journalist’s interest in West Midlands slang. I thought I’d grown up speaking it fairly fluently, or at least playing rugby with people who were experts. So it came as some surprise to learn that in the west midlands a 'shag' is a type of bread roll.
The young lady journalist told her readers that if they went into a bakery in the region and asked for a 'hot buttered shag' they would be offered a warm bread roll with toasted cheese on top.
So here in a nut shell is my dilemma about slang dictionaries. Where I grew up, in the west midlands, and where I went to uni, still in the west midlands, if you went into a bakery and asked for a hot buttered shag they would have assumed a) you were nuts, b) into some really weird kind of kinky sex or c) taking the mickey.
But does that mean that nowhere in the wide west midlands this term wasn’t used? Does this mean that somewhere some poor guy was wondering why his girl friend had stopped talking to him after he’d innocently offered her a bread roll?
If you lived in Coventry you knew that people in Wolverhampton spoke a strange and mysterious language. Even the move to Birmingham was fraught with incomprehension. (ok, not so bad as being English and arriving in Australia and hearing the phrase “shag on a rock” or “look at that hunk of spunk over there”..but still enough to make you wary.)
I imagine two codgers in a pub, accepting free drinks and earnestly answering the young lady Journalist’s questions. Everyone knows the English are serious, unimaginative, literal minded people (unlike the Irish) and so they can be trusted to tell the God’s honest. I can also imagine two said codgers pissing themselves when she left having told her to go ask for a hot buttered shag in the local bakers. Maybe things have changed. Maybe there is such a thing, (after all you can go into a shop in Qld and ask for a Gaytime) but in the world I grew up in I’d love to have been there to see the baker’s face, and his customers’, if she did….
So when I came to write Lady G I thought about making it specifically west midlands and realised I couldn’t. It’s true that you can argue that the man from Stratford wrote the plays of Shakespeare because so many purely Warwickshire words and expression turn up in them.
I started out looking for the source of a phrase and was surprised to find that its origins were mid 20th American, not English as I thought.
There’s an undoubted attraction to language that is indigenous to place and time. Barry Lopez went so far as to suggest that genuine mental health is tied into the usage of a language that is organic to the place where it is being used. And certainly Seamus Heaney et al have made their localised dialect a cornerstone of their practice.
In England, language spoken under a cloth cap with ferrets down its trousers always seemed “authentic” in a way that FSE never did.
But Coventry is a migrant's city, and in many ways always has been. According to the VCH, after the war the percentage of incomers to the city was disproportionately high. The people I went to (RC) school with had parents who were Irish, Polish, Yugoslavian, Lithuanian, and 'Slovakian. Neither of mine were born in Coventry. There must have been some second or third generation native English but the swirl of voices was anything but indigenous.
This was compounded by our English teachers who laboured under the now unfashionable idea that teaching the children of NESB migrants Formal Standard English was a door opening activity
So apart from the fact that the way I say Bus and Road sometimes betray my place of origin, I have no local dialect to fall back on, no “thole” to make a fuss about. Damn. But then it occurs to me the attraction of the local in a world of mass movements is a form of romantic nostalgia. I'd love to know how many people today live and die in the place they are born. I'm betting it's not the majority. How many of Heaney’s readers have stuck their hands up a cow’s arse?
Still there’s the excitement of discovering that what you thought the phrase meant is exactly what it meant...in 1811
Slang dictionaries remind me that whatever the rules are, the words will always escape. They don’t remain tied to their classifications as parts of speech, and they certainly don’t rest in the comfort of a neat dictionary definition. Nor will they be tied down to the ball and chain of etymology.
It’s reassuring though to find phrases I thought I’d misheard, misremembered or which had simply been misused. I’d come to the conclusion that Cupboard Love must have been a mistake (perhaps for covert love) but no, it’s there in 1811 and it meant what I thought it meant. As does/did Mumchancing.
It’s even more reassuring to find out how much hasn’t changed. Phrases that needed explaining in 1811: Kick the bucket, out of kilter, a lazy man’s load, lop-sided, queer street, toddle etc etc meant the same thing 150 years later and were still colouring the speech of adults and children alike.
And then there are the phrases used today which needed explaining then and which, if you stop and think about them, don’t make any more literal sense now. Boxing. A shop lifter. To sit bolt upright. To be taken in.
In 1699, what would you do if someone offered you “A Willing-Tit”?
The Bodleian Library, which previously published Cawdrey’s “First English Dictionary,” has now published an equally welcome edition of “The First English Dictionary of Slang, 1699” with an introduction by John Simpson.
It’s a great read, though not as sleazy as the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, and while claiming to offer explanations of Cant, it also includes phrases and other terms, some of which seem out of place.
For example: “Batter”: “The ingredients for a pudding or pancake, when they are all mixed and stirred together”. The OED gives examples of this from the fifteenth century. But Batter as a verb meant to beat against or bombard, and to call the stuff you beat “a batter” is an extension of meaning equal to Nooz’d: for “married”. The impression of words as static, solid objects independent of usage is a fantasy conveyed by dictionaries. Historical Slang dictionaries dispel the illusion. Not only do you get to see “standard usage” emerging from slang: “To box” is explained as “to fight with the fists” and “Bitter-Cold” is given what now seems an obvious explanation. The difference between “slang” and “standard usage” is one of convention.
The surreal effect of the dictionary is to create a context where the plainest of definitions start to seem suspect. “Rangle; when gravel is given to a Hawk, to bring her to Stomack”. Suddenly the nouns seem to be trying to hide. A hawk? It can’t be the bird? Rangle must have a hidden meaning that only an initiate, fully cognizant of the secret meanings of Gravel and Hawk can unravel. Which is off putting at first and then fun once you give in to it. (The OED explains Rangle; the gravel given to hawks to aid their digestion). Meaning recedes down an endless chain of lexical paranoia?
If puns are the adulterers of semantics, then slang is often seen as the refuge for the demented escapees of the dictionary’s straight jacket, proof that Un Petit D’un Petit was right and you can make words mean what you want them to mean if you pay them enough. Proof too of the linguistic inventiveness of human beings and perhaps a counter argument to the idea that we are passive victims of the language we enter.
But Cant or Peddler’s French is thought to be the secret language of initiate thieves, beggars, tramps and prostitutes, collectively called the canting crew. To modern ears, or mine at least, it has an odd mixture of menace, humour and daftness which I plundered for purposes of Anhaga.
Acoustically, phrase and sense don’t always tally. It’s not just lexical meaning that changes but the feel of the shape and sound of the words. Something that may have once sounded downright nasty might sound silly to modern ears.
Darkman’s is the night, and the sinister Darkman’s Budge is a house creeper. That sounds rightly ominous.
The highest title in the twenty-five orders of rogues was a “Ruffler”, one step above an “Upright Man” who has a right to “Dells”. This just sounds suitably opaque to anyone who doesn’t know.
At times the words seem to have been deliberately forced in the wrong direction. “Well, you’re a dim-mort” sounds like an insult but is actually a compliment since a dim mort is a “pretty wench”.
But while I suspect the rogues and thieves of the 17th century would have been a scary bunch, the top man in the Canting Crew was called “The Dimber-Damber”.
“Right you, the Olli-Compoli says we’re taking you to the Dimber-Damber” just doesn’t sound like scary 17th Century Criminal talk. It sounds like something Sir Derek Jacoby would say during a visit to Makka Pakka and the Tombli boos in The Night Garden.
And a “Willing-Tit’? “A little horse, that travels cheerfully”. (and quickly to the OED in case “ a willing horse” means something other than a four legged animal.)