Irregular behaviour.

Anyone who’s attempted to learn English as a foreign tongue can tell you how weirdly different it is from other languages. I’d like to focus on just a few of these absurdities, prompted by the recent decision of the American Dialect Society to award their Word of the Year to the singular they.

To refer to yourself, you use I; to refer to a group you’re part of, it’s we. The English language has this sorted. However, a third party group is given the pronoun they, while a third party that’s not part of a group is given he, she or it. These latter three pronouns are often fine to use, but there can be problems.

English: Grammatical Person / Pronouns - third...
English: Grammatical Person / Pronouns – third person singular (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Supposing you’ve received an anonymous letter. How would you refer to the author? It would be inappropriate to say it because it wasn’t written by an animal nor an inanimate object. Similarly, it’s unwieldy to keep saying he or she. So like a trooper, they steps up to the challenge.

To compound matters, there are people who are not necessarily transgender but who identify as a mixture of both genders or as neither, and therefore it would be incorrect to write he, she or it. Again, they volunteers for duty.

So on the whole, they fills the gender-neutral gap in our language, and it has done for hundreds of years. Yet it falls foul of another uniquely English grammar quirk.

Let’s use the verb to run. Substituting the to for a pronoun gives us: I run, you run, we run, but he, she or it runs. So when we use they as a singular, it ought to be correct to say they runs, but it sounds wrong.

Why, then, hasn’t anyone come up with with a suitable substitute? Folk have tried, but none have caught on. The Guardian gives a detailed account of the search for the magic word while the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee provides a guide about using personal pronouns.

If you’re unsure about word usage, you could do worse than follow Hannah McCall. She’s a qualified proofreader who writes about the trickier points of English in her blog, yet in an accessible manner. I’m also aware she can probably find a dozen holes in this entry alone.

But I don’t want you to go away feeling that English is the worst language in the world. After all, we have some words that no other language has.

One of these is serendipity, when you make a beneficial or pleasing find by chance. Another biggie is trade-off, which won an award a few years ago as it’s so difficult to translate. It’s not a mere compromise, but where you exchange one quality for another, while understanding the advantages and disadvantages of each.

The element of

Last week, we lost one of the most flamboyant and enigmatic musicians of our generation. Yet you never hear David Bowie described as a 70s star or as retro; he managed to remain relevant throughout his 50-year career.

One way he achieved this was the use of surprise, from the Ziggy Stardust look, to Jareth In Labyrinth, to setting up an ISP in 1998. And that’s something other writers and poets can learn from.

Prior to 1992, PD James was known for writing detective novels. She was 72 when she published her only science fiction work, The Children of Men, earning positive reviews from many corners. Similarly, you would expect something funny from Clive James, but his poetry collection Sentenced to Life is thoughtful and poignant.

So how does a writer deliver something unexpected? It might be as simple as writing a short story when you usually pen poetry, or as radical as having a section of your novel made into an animated video.

Either way, the idea must still come naturally. If you’re writing poetry on a subject when you’d really rather be adapting it for the stage, it’ll be obvious your heart isn’t in it. It’s a good idea to revisit an idea that hasn’t worked its current form and see where it can be adapted to another, or experiment with different ways of creating ideas.

When I have the beginnings of an idea, for Screenshot from DCAexample, I like to go for a long walk and turn over the idea in my head before putting anything down on paper. Yet when I was asked to respond to an exhibition at Dundee Contemporary Arts in October, I had no ideas, not even the beginning of one. Instead, I sat on the yoga mats provided as part of the exhibition with a notepad and told myself I was staying until I put something down.

The result (pictured) was a visual response with a wire basket and 100 googly eyes. It was unusual and untested for me, as I’ve had no art training – and to my friends who know this, it was most definitely a Continue reading “The element of”

Think globally, act locally.

As this blog is about fiction and poetry, my chosen title is a correction of the phrase Think global, act local. Since think and act are verbs, I’ve added -ly to the other two words to change them from adjectives to adverbs. Now both clauses are paired up nicely.

The phrase has been around for decades, however you choose to word it, but it gained new currency at the dawn of the 21st century as more and more people had access to the Internet. For the first time, ordinary individuals could type a message and potentially have it seen instantly by a worldwide audience.

One problem this throws up is relevance. Unless I’m writing only for local folks, I somehow have to make my blog relevant to an audience much further afield, and that often means overlooking what’s happening in my own city to concentrate on our shared mass culture.

Photograph of Desperate Dan statue in Dundee c...
Photograph of Desperate Dan statue in Dundee city centre; behind it is City Square, the Caird Hall (straight ahead) and Dundee City Chambers (to the right) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today, however, I’ll be turning the camera on my own city of Dundee in Scotland, with a population of around 148,000. This place has made its mark on the wider world in several ways. Grand Theft Auto was coded here, James Chalmers introduced the adhesive postage stamp, and the Beano is printed five minutes from my house.

From a literary standpoint, a number of notable works have been produced by its citizens, from William McGonagall’s terrible verse in the 19th century right up to Oliver Langmead’s 2015 novel Dark Star.

Mondays are a particular bottleneck for reading and writing events, with the Literary Lock-In at the end of each month, my own group Hotchpotch near the middle of the month, and a Silent Reading Party fitting in between the two. Literary Dundee helps to coordinate these, plus the regular author visits, not forgetting the major Literary Festival in October.

Altogether, Dundee is one of the best places for a writer to be at the moment, with a more active literary scene than its population figure might suggest. Later this year, two of my poems are also scheduled to appear in Seagate III, continuing from volumes I and II published in the 1970s and 1980s respectively. You can bet I’ll be telling you all about that when it happens.

Even your idols have idols.

It was reported last week that Lemmy from Motörhead has died at the age of 70. As you might expect, tributes flooded in from around the world. It was the messages from other musicians that interested me most. A number of them commented how much influence he had over their own sound and attitude.

It reminded me of an epiphany I had a few months back: that I like it when the people I admire also look up to other people.

Scroobius Pip on stage in 2010
Scroobius Pip on stage in 2010 (Photo credit: Wikipedia) PS: I am not obsessed.

For example, I recently developed a slight obsession with poet Scroobius Pip who looks up to his contemporary Kate Tempest, with whom I then developed a slight obsession. In a 2010 interview, Tempest stated that her influences include Virginia Woolf, Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, W B Yeats and W H Auden.

You will encounter the occasional person who claims to have done it all by themselves. Some years ago, I interviewed an up-and-coming Glasgow band. One of the questions I asked each band member was Who are your influences? One of them – I can’t remember which – rather grandly claimed that she wasn’t influenced by anyone as she didn’t want to copy anyone.

Firstly, there’s no way she had no influences. She would have learnt her instrument by playing other people’s music. And around the time of the interview, Franz Ferdinand were big and The Fratellis were breaking through. Every Glasgow musician was keeping an eye on these home-grown bands, even if it were only to make a deliberate move away from their sound. For a writer, even a bad novel can show you how not to pen a book.

Secondly, an idol might merely be different from the person who looks up to him or her, not necessarily better. Is it possible to compare Joyce or Yeats with Tempest? It would be difficult. But nobody writes in true isolation; any author you’ve ever read. regardless of genre or style, can potentially have a bearing upon your current work.

So next time you enjoy someone’s work, remember your idols also have idols. Find out who they enjoy, and see whether you can spot their influences.


PS: I am not obsessed