The Games Book Tour: Autumn 2018


games cover 2

UK Book Tour 2018

More Wirds


The strangest thing happened in the Lerwick Tescos, where I stocked up on basics for a month staying at Sumburgh Head: when the person at the till asked if I’d like some boxes to carry everything in, she called me “du”. I hadn’t heard the familiar and informal “you”, pronounced “thu” in Orkney, addressed to me in casual speech, for maybe twenty years. I remember it as perfectly ordinary when I was younger (when I was peedie, corrects my mind), living in Westray (not on, corrects my mind), but when I’m home in Orkney now I never hear it, not with my half-in-half-out accent as a prompt, and definitely not in Tescos. Hearing it then felt like finding a diamond on the pavement, and over the next month I gathered pockets full of diamonds, because, again, it was perfectly ordinary.

I was in Shetland partly to retreat and work on my own Orkney language book, and partly to read, listen to and speak about as much of the Shetland language as I could, to find out what was happening there and what, maybe, other language revitalisation projects could learn from it. There were other things than the precious Tescos Du that struck me, sometimes astonished me. I went to Shetland ForWirds annual concert, which featured three or four generations of Shetland speakers in poetry, theatre and song, and had an audience of a couple of hundred. (The ForWirds website is stuffed full of resources and activity.) I burrowed through the Shetland section of the Lerwick library, which had around three times as many books in dialect, mostly poetry and storytelling but plenty other besides, as the same section in Kirkwall’s. One book, Bjorn Sandison’s children’s novel Mystery at Da Laird’s Haa, is the most fluid and natural Scots prose I’ve ever read, without ever compromising on the integrity of the tongue: with a vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation that’s substantially different than the Orcadian I grew up with, I was amazed at how easy I found it to read, and put that down to the strength of the language around me.

I had the conversation about why the language seems stronger in Shetland than Orkney several times with different folk, and never were we able to pin it down exactly. Perhaps it’s to do with Shetland’s greater distance and Orkney’s greater involvement with global trade and colonisation, but given that both have a roughly 50/50 population of born and new islanders, or those with and without the local language, or however you want to name us, I think that’s probably a small part of the picture.

Reading Mark Ryan Smith’s Literature of Shetland, I’m struck by how unbroken the canon of published dialect work is. After Walter Traill Dennison’s Orcadian Sketchbook, apart from the too-neglected Christina Costie and Robert Rendall, there’s little to nothing in Orkney until the 1980s, while equivalent work in Shetland is followed by much more original authorship all the way through the 20th century. The role of the New Shetlander in fostering the local literature seems crucial. Some folk I spoke to wondered whether the popular success of George Mackay Brown and Edwin Muir, who both chose English, and the latter of whom wrote against Scots, overshadowed local language writing and made us feel it wasn’t suitable for literary work. There was a question of whether a greater focus on Shetlanders writing for Shetlanders, rather than for a Central Belt audience, strengthened the tongue.

The dictionary work also occurred  earlier and more comprehensively in Shetland, and by language partisans, whereas Hugh Marwick’s Orkney Norn was focussed on recording rather than revitalising, and Gregor Lamb’s Orkney Wordbook came later on, with the more accessible Orkney Dictionary with Margaret Flaws only in the 1990s. John Graham’s work also came with a complete grammar of Shetland, which helps legitimise it, whereas the grammar notes in the Orkney Dictionary are little and late, and we still have no complete record of the grammar of the language. The same battles in the education system — some trying to stamp out the language, some seeking to preserve it — happened in both island groups, but perhaps Shetland had a larger arsenal to deploy.

None of which is to say that there’s not exciting and enlivening work happening in Orkney. Hansel Co-operative Press, so engaged in Shetland’s language work, has also included Orcadian writing in its publications, and now Abersee Press is driving local publishing forward. Our dictionary’s online now, Scottish PEN’s Many Voices project supported local writers with a workshop that I hear’s still going, and I see more Orcadian written down now than I did twenty years ago, even if I hear less. Following the success of Shetland’s Wir Midder Tongue Facebook group, the Orkney Reevlers group has spent over a year now recording local language, encouraging folk to use it without fear or shame, and so has produced an invaluable record and piece of revitalisation: thanks, moderators.

I am feart, though, as many who love minority languages are, even in Shetland which is likely the strongest bastion of a minority Germanic language in these islands. Faced with global media, changing populations, aye-bidan stigmatisation, chronic underfunding, generational shifts, and all the other muddle of a changing world, it’s not always easy to see how the tongue you love can survive — or how it can adapt to new circumstances while retaining as much of what you love as it can. One thing I think about often is that this may depend on reaching a good accommodation between Orkney and English speakers, just as the survival of small islands depends on born islanders accepting some change and difference and new islanders adapting to and respecting the island history. Alison Miller, in an essay for Abersee’s Speak for Yourself, wrote courageously about the strange split in Orkney literature, where Orkney language work tends to be confined to community events like Harvest Homes and weddings and Young Farmers concerts, and English language work tends to be confined to authorised literary events where, worryingly, Orkney speakers are often neither seen nor heard; she points out that an anti-Orkney language prejudice can still often be heard and puts up barriers. Of course I, half Orkney and half not, would say this: to live in a muddled identity you have to bring the parts of it together somehow. But I can’t help thinking that the only way the language survives is the way the islands survive: being a bit of both, with native speakers and learned speakers both allowing each other to speak without shame.

I want to see, and be part of, more events and more books in Orkney that celebrate the language, til we can build them up to rival the scale of our Shetland cousins. I also dream of a revitalisation of the dictionary work, now that we’re digital, to help develop fuller grammars and records of spellings and keeps the words circulating: dictionary work that keeps the language living rather than pins it to the page. After spending a month up in the lighthouse, I also hope for more collaboration and traffic between the different islands and their languages: meeting with members of the ForWirds team, we dreamed up at least a dozen fantasy projects, from bilingual events to interisland translations, that are just waiting on a bit of money and a bit of energy to push them forward. On we go.

Flaneur: Day 3

Poetry, Uncategorized

FLANEUR is a little project I’ve made for the BBC’s Contains Strong Language: a randomly-generated writing-exploration game that you can take part in. Each day of the festival I’ll be taking a randomised wander around Hull and posting a little poem about it. Head to Mixital to get your own instructions for a surprise, write a response, and share it with us. I’ll be reading and chatting about the responses on BBC social media channels each afternoon.

2017-09-30 10.33.11

A piece of blue industrial plant — a cherry picker — stands outside a modern redbrick building. In its plate glass window, a brownstone church is reflected.


Shuttered redbrick sports a lush          burst of weeds like spring pubes,
thick and bolshie — daddy, shove          your hand in says the winking
closed circuit camera, the razorwire          black as best silk sheets.

          …harling split to old stone     poly rags    yellow squirts
          wonky corrugated topper    nettle bush     hunks of river mud…

“Post,” they call this, post         -industrial, -ironic worn iron signs, as though
it were not live with pigeons           purring their war. The mill dock shrugs,
takes wild new bubbling paint,          gnashes its gums and grinds joy.

hull bridge

The site described in the poem: a semi-derelict mill and grain store, and an old cantilever bridge across the Humber.

My Instructions

1. Meander away from the sun for a while.
2. Roll backwards for thirteen seconds.
3. Go northwest for five minutes.
4. Look.
5. Take the third right.
6. Watch.
7. Wait.
8. Roll towards the largest building nearby for a little while.
9. Look.
10. Stop, find a comfortable spot, and write a poem about where you’ve been.
11. Head back.


A map showing a short and wonky walk through central Hull.

Wander Notes

A short one today, as I was showing the BBC’s Vanessa Scott around FLANEUR — but even the short instructions gave us a few pleasant surprises. Walking with someone else slowed me down and made me look more closely for interesting things. We got lost in the back alleys of the shopping centres, possibly (accidentally!) setting off a burglar alarm (I swear we just walked into a car park), ambled into and out of a gorgeous old theatre mews, found ourselves in a redbrick industrial estate, and ended up next to a gigantic grain store and old mill building, Maizecor. I’m finding that things always get most interesting once we’ve crossed the A-roads that ring Hull city centre, but even the centre has a strange and quite lovely jumble of architecture: Victorian and Edwardian grandeur, redbrick industry, 60s brutalism, 90s shopping streets and contemporary culture-led plate glass architecture all compete for space.

Poem Notes

I’m wary of artists’ fetishisation of post-industrial architecture and dereliction — there’s something patronising about it, something that fails to understand what the loss of city centre industry means. These buildings can be scary and sad, but I love them. And I want them to bite back. I wanted to ask this building how it was feeling in the world, and the answer seemed to be: rude and dangerous and old and sexy. I’m happiest with the first three lines, and maybe the poem should be cut to just that — it gets looser as the poem goes on, and I don’t need to explain as much as I do. But I loved meeting this building so much that I had to keep writing down the words.