Friday, October 22, 2010


Peter here. I was just sitting the other day wondering about those things that had influenced my writing over the years.

My parents; the culture I grew up in - the south side of Glasgow in Scotland; my childhood experiences; and, of course, the writers I have read.

It is interesting, I think, that when you come from a small country, a minority culture like Scotland (and it is quite different from the dominating English culture in so many ways), you inevitably reach out to other, bigger cultures and influences to draw nourishment.

It helped, too, that my father was an English teacher, steeped in literature, and that his bookshelves were groaning with great writers from all over the world - Scotland, England, Ireland, Europe, America. As a young teenager I read everyone from Dostoevsky, through Camus, to Shakespeare and Burns, before crossing the Atlantic to submerge myself in Twain and James, Hemingway, Steinbeck and Chandler. I drew no distinction between those books regarded as “literature”, and those seen as mere popular fiction. I was as much at home with Erle Stanley Gardner as Emily Bronte.

But I found myself increasingly drawn to those twentieth century writers, mostly American, who were breaking with the traditions and conventions of English literature and writing about things and places no one had ever written about before. The minutiae of daily life, the examination of the human condition, the placing of ordinary men and women under the microscope in what were often the most mundane settings. It revolutionised writing. It broke all the boundaries, and as writers stepped forward on to virgin territory they had to find a new vocabulary to describe the experience - a vocabulary taken from the mouths of ordinary mortals. Often crude, but always colourful, and rich like the soil from which it had sprung.

The Irish/American writer, J. P. Donleavy taught me, too, that you could break every rule of grammar you had ever learned, and in doing so free yourself from the constraints of a language which the guardians of “literature” had kept in chains for so long.

I was in my early twenties, and revelling in the freedoms that other writers were creating.

But now, thirty years on, I find myself returning to the culture from which I sprang, writing about the country in which I was born, and returning to the traditions and vocabularly that I lived and breathed as I grew up. And realising, almost for the first time, that Scottish writers had been doing a hundred, two hundred years ago exactly what those American writers I so much admired had been doing in the twentieth century. Writing about every day folk in the language they spoke.

And as I write once more about my native land, I am rediscovering the richness of its vocabulary. The tragedy is that outside of Scotland, very few people will understand or appreciate it, in the way I have absorbed and appreciated the language of bigger cultures. So, of course, in the end it will be lost, and I can only take comfort from the fact that if you consult your Webster’s Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language, you will be amazed to find how many of the words that trip off your tongue have Scottish roots.

So my influences come from far and wide, but are also fundamental. And this was brought home to me with great clarity when re-reading yesterday a story I had first read as a teenager. A story within a story. It is called “Wandering Willie’s Tale” and is to be found in Sir Walter Scott’s novel “Redgauntlet”. A story told in a wonderful, earthy Scots tongue, and a magical piece of storytelling.

I challenge you to read it and tell me what you think! It can be found here.

And in the meantime I shall continue to temper my vocabulary so that it might be universally understood.


John said...

Excellent post Peter (except you missed the second "i" from minutiae).
I would argue against tempering your own vocabulary to "fit in" because then how would everyone else learn and expand their vocabularies. "English" as a language has over the centuries always borrowed words from other languages and used them to expand the vocabulary.
What would we call a small shop if we had not borrowed "kiosk" from the Vikings? What would we call the minivan manufactured by Dodge if we had not borrowed "caravan" from the Persians.
My attitude is and has always been if other cultures want me to learn their ways and idioms, then I would be remiss in not enlightening them in reciprocity.
If it is outwith their knowledge (or beyond their ken) to understand that fortnight is a time period lasting two weeks, then how else will they learn if we do not continue to use the terms and explain what their meanings are.

peter_may said...

Spelling error corrected, John! And as far as making no compromises in my vocabulary is concerned, try telling it to the editors in London who don't understand simple everyday words like "smirr" and "slunge". Trouble is, I never even knew they were Scots till I was told that no one understood them.

Rick Blechta said...

John, I have to agree with Peter here -- reluctantly, though.

The English language is such a vast, sprawling beast and I'm afraid our tendency these days is to try to tame and reduce it to a banal commonality because not everyone can understand it. Scotland, Wales, Ireland, actually all English-speaking countries have wonderful words that are local and unknown by the greater world. For some reason, the gatekeepers, be they editors, broadcasters, writers, seem to want to outlaw anything out of the mainstream -- to our language's detriment. What's wrong with having to look something up once in awhile?

My favourite word from Scotland is "manky". Such a great-sounding little thing and quite descriptive. I'm sure it would get cut from 95% of submitted manuscripts.

John said...

Rick and Peter, are you allowed to have footnotes in your books? I am thinking that that would be one way of introducing readers to new words without the editors insistence on finding a synonym.

peter_may said...

I wouldn't allow footnotes in a work of fiction, John - it would totally interrupt the flow of the narrative. The French translator of my latest book wanted footnotes to explain cultural phenomena peculiar to Scotland. I absolutely forbade it - in fact we had quite a fight about it. I won, of course. Nothing should interrupt the narrative flow, including (and perhaps especially) vocabulary. If it's a word the reader doesn't know, then it should be apparent from context.