Carré on Spying

On Thursday evening, I enjoyed the privilege of watching a live cinema broadcast with spy author John le Carré. He made a speech from the Southbank Centre in London and was later interviewed by Jon Snow of Channel 4 News.

Even at the age of nearly 86, he’s still an imposing presence, with a slow and measured delivery that commands attention. He related a number of anecdotes about his time in the Security Services, many of them delightfully unflattering about the other party. I suspect, though, that there are a hundred more, all quite unrepeatable in polite company. Indeed, the sole swear word appeared in a direct quote regarding the rivalry between MI5 and MI6, reminding us that he wasn’t always a grand old figure of Establishment, but one of the lads.

John le Carre

It was in the late 1950s when le Carré began his career in espionage, and his most popular character – George Smiley – was created during this period. Yet the author isn’t stuck in the past and I admire that in anyone. For instance, he remains as politically astute as ever: acknowledging the starkly different threats posed by the Soviet Union and Isis, while lamenting the reemergence of fascism after fallow decades. Like the idealist Smiley might have believed, he would much rather have seen an era of peace when the Cold War ended.

The overarching purpose of the evening was to promote his latest novel A Legacy of Spies. Though le Carré has warned in the past that he’d given his final interview, it seems he can’t help but be lured back into the spotlight from time to time. For as long as he’s prepared to do this, he can rest assured there’s an audience waiting to hear his words.

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Fluent in 1½ Languages

On Friday, I attended the premiere of a play written by John Quinn, whom I’ve known for several years.

In O Halflins an Hecklers an Weavers an Weemin, he tells the story of the jute industry in Dundee. The play was staged in the round within Verdant Works, which used to be a functioning jute mill and is now a museum dedicated to the manufacture of the material. I thoroughly enjoyed the evening, particularly the satirical in-jokes that only locals understand.

A large portion of the dialogue is in local dialect; in fact, even the title seems like gibberish to those who aren’t familiar with the vernacular. Helpfully, however, the programme contains a glossary of the terms used in the production. The title translates as ‘The Mother Tongue’:

Glossary from the play
Glossary from the play

In everyday life, I speak and understand standard English. I also understood almost every word of the play without looking at the definitions, and I’d be able to decipher the dialect’s parent language: Scots. But to say anything in dialect or Scots, I would have to make a conscious effort to work out my sentences.

That’s why I say I’m fluent in 1½ languages.

There’s a long tradition of English as a written language, with dictionaries and grammar guides going back centuries. Scots, on the other hand, is more of an oral language and there’s no commonly-accepted way to render it on paper. As such, I find it easier to catch what’s being said than if it’s written down.

The problem is most apparent with the sound at the end of the word ‘loch’, which is pronounced like ‘huh’, but said from the back of the throat; a similar sound appears in German. This guttural noise is usually written as ‘ch’, but in English, those letters are pronounced as in the word ‘church’. There are also less obvious issues. The word ‘yes’ can be translated as ‘aye’ or ‘ay’, but depending on the context, the word ‘ae’ might mean ‘always’.

In modern times, there’s been a revival of the Scots language. Perhaps it’s down to the formation of the current Scottish Parliament in 1999; perhaps it’s because Scots speakers can now easily find one another online.

In my experience, there’s a minority of people who use the language merely to show off or to exclude non-speakers. But spoken for the right reasons, it’s full of rich expressions that often have no direct translation.

‘Tartle’ is the act of hesitating while introducing someone because you’ve forgotten their name, and is under consideration by the Collins dictionary. ‘Driech’ can be used to describe any weather except warm and sunny, and can only be used in relation to weather. There are even informal neologisms such as the word Facebook being split into its component words and translated to ‘Pusjotter’; there’s no one definitive reference for this, so here are my search results.

I’ve no plans to start writing in Scots myself. But I am pleased to be fluent in half a language and I appreciate the insight it gives me.

I’m Sorry, But…

Almost every writer who wants to be published will have to face rejection somewhere along the line. Perhaps it’s not what they’re looking for at that time; maybe they liked it, but other work was of a higher standard.

Last week, though, I was in the position when I had to turn down an offer. I have a friend – let’s call her Alice – who runs community engagement activities for a historic trust. This time, she was running an event for people aged 60 and over to share their memories for a children’s’ book. Unfortunately, one of the participants had fallen ill, but she had an unusual story of World War II that deserved to be told.

Anzacwoundedturk
Wounded soldier (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Alice furnished me with the important points. I considered the offer for six days, but I found it impossible to shape a poem or a story around the facts I was given.

The difficulty with biography is that when you don’t know the individual personally, it’s necessary to conduct a lot of research. There was a Middle Eastern leader some years ago who would carry out an hour of research for every minute he planned to spend with a visitor; inconveniently, my own research has not turned up this guy’s name.

I need to stress that this wasn’t Alice’s shortcoming, but from the information I was given, I felt I’d be unable to do justice to her story. So I made the decision to decline the offer, but not before referring Alice to a tutor friend who teaches life writing. I do hope the participant’s story can be told in a suitable manner.

Of course, if there’d been no requirement to tell a true story, I could easily have taken the available facts and fictionalised the rest. It would have been very different, but probably rather compelling.

What If This Entry Had Never Been Written?

In September 2002, I left home for the first time to study at the University of the West of Scotland. After matriculation, I met a fellow student called Billy, and we decided to head to the student union. In those days, you received your first student loan tranche by cheque on matriculation day, then the rest by bank transfer at the start of each term.

As Billy and I passed my bank, I realised I’d forgotten to pick up said cheque. I had two main options:

  1. Head back to the university, collect it, then join him later.
  2. Continue to the union and collect it later or the next day.

I chose the first. I don’t recall taking too long, but when I arrived at the union, I couldn’t find Billy. In fact, I never saw him again. I don’t know why we didn’t swap phone numbers at the bank.

But what if I’d chosen the second option? We might have had a few drinks then went our separate ways, or we might have become firm friends and been inseparable for the rest of our respective courses.

This decision therefore created a point of diversions where one sequence of events happened because of an action, and another sequence of events didn’t happen thanks to the same action. In real life, we can’t know what might have occurred if the other decision were made, but we can make logical assumptions in fiction to produce an alternative narrative.

Sliding Doors
Sliding Doors (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The most famous example might be the 1998 film Sliding Doors. Gwyneth Paltrow’s character Helen Quilley catches a train in one narrative, but misses the train in the other. This creates two parallel but separate universes where two stories play out.

The technique also works in novels. In Fatherland, Robert Harris explores what might have happened in the event of a German win at the end of World War II. The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling imagines that Charles Babbage completed his eponymous machine and began the computer revolution much earlier than it actually happened.

I have unpublished novels that use the same alternative history technique: in one, men are extinct by the 26th century; in another, the petrol engine isn’t invented until 1999. I’m editing a third at the moment that takes the Sliding Doors approach towards the end. I’ve had to work out a way to show this without confusing the reader, and my current solution is to label the chapters so there will be one Chapter 13, followed by a Chapter 14A then a Chapter 14B.

Will it work? Only time will tell.

Some Salvaged Scribbles.

A few days after my handwritten entry last week, I was looking for something in my bottom drawer, when I discovered an old notepad. It’s nothing special; it’s a Tesco Value spiral-bound A4 pad with a slightly ripped cover.

I’ve used a quarter of its 80 pages, and most of it is taken up with attempts to expand on a fragment of poetry that I tried to expand into a song, although there is also a brief novel idea, pages of free writing, and a poem on the topic of my own handwriting.

Of these, I only consider the poem be a decent piece of work. As for the rest, I know what I was trying to express, but I didn’t have the techniques at my disposal to do it properly. But looking at the content, I’ve calculated that I last wrote in this notebook in September 2009, more than a year before I began writing. I’m therefore not surprised about the quality.

My filing system
My filing system

Yesterday, I discovered other half-completed notebooks, but none as full or detailed as this one. I’ve noticed I rarely reached the last page, although I’m more than likely to complete my current ones. Also, there are hardly any drawings or even doodles, just text.

But the one notebook I would like to look at again is missing, believed lost. At my very first National Novel Writing Month meeting, my laptop battery died. I had to rush out and buy a notepad and mechanical pencil so I could continue my story. I had it about a year before its disappearance, and it contains drafts of my first novel, and some of my earliest stories. I don’t think I’ve lost anything, but I might have.

I know I’m not the only writer with notepads dotted about, and I’d like to hear about yours. Do you have any hidden in a drawer somewhere? What did you discover when you pulled them out again? Have you misplaced an important story you wish you could recover?