……….I thought I’d start this post with the words of a classic Billy Connolly song, as I plan to write a little about Glasgow, my home and the best city in the world! I always have this song in my mind any time I go home – only in Glasgow can you have a song with a chorus which includes the lines “Beedie Beedie Bare Bum, Yohoo, Who He!”
The prompt for recalling this song, for thinking about home, and for writing about Glaswegian literature, was a news story about the new Ken Loach film, “The Angels Share”. The film is set in Glasgow and is about 4 men, sentenced to community service, who hatch a plan to steal priceless malt whisky (the title refers to the fact that about 2% of whisky evaporates each year during the ageing process). The Daily Telegraph reported that when it was screened at the Cannes Film Festival it came with sub-titles – but NOT for translating the English into French which you would expect! Instead it had subtitles to translate the Glaswegian dialect into English! I watched the trailer, which doesn’t have subtitles, and it seemed fine to me – but I guess that’s easy for me to say! If you want to try out following the Glaswegian for yourself, here’s ‘The Angels Game’ trailer, in all its sub-title less glory, on the Guardian website. What do you think?
It got me thinking about Scottish literature which makes frequent use of local dialect and of literature set in and around Glasgow in particular. I can understand why people can find the Scottish accent hard to decipher at times and equally I can understand that it’s not easy to read either. And it’s been that way for centuries. A look at any Burns Poetry Anthology will show either a glossary or notes on each page translating the relevant parts of old Scots tongue to English. But while this sort of sub-titling is feasible in poetry or in fiction where there’s intermittent use of the local dialect, in novels where there’s a lot of use of dialect, sub-titling isn’t a feasible option. It would be the equivalent of reading a novel in a foreign language you don’t speak and relying on a translation dictionary every step of the way!
There have been some magnificent Scottish / Glaswegian novels that I’ve read over the years and some have certainly not been impeded in reaching a world-wide readership by their use of dialect. It also been a subject which has provoked some debate on occasions. While some people think dialect adds authenticity to a novel, others argue that’s it’s merely a gimmick, used to either bring it notoriety or to excuse liberal use of swear words. I guess the challenge in reading an unfamiliar dialect is that it is either something that becomes a barrier or something that makes you enjoy the book more, because it adds to the experience of reading the novel. And of course it’s not just those outside of Scotland who take issue with novels written in strong dialect. Even in Glasgow itself, you’ll find people who dislike the portrayal of Glasgow dialect in films and books as being bad for the city’s image. They can read it easily enough, but they’d rather that they, and the rest of the world, didn’t have to! But to me, that “not good for Glasgow” stance doesn’t give nearly enough credit to the people who read these books or watch these films.
Perhaps the most well-known and widely read book in a Scottish dialect is Irvine Welsh’s “Trainspotting”. However it’s mainly set in Leith and around Edinburgh. So instead, I’ll focus on my own favourite novel, set in Glasgow, James Kelman’s “How Late It Was, How Late”. I thought it was a brilliant novel and I for one was delighted when it won the Booker Prize in the mid 1990’s. At the time I remember quite a debate in the media about whether or not a book of its kind, written in working-class Glaswegian dialect as it was, should be honoured with the Booker. (This is the book which apparently has the word “fuck” written over 4000 times throughout the narrative!). The book tells the story of Sammy, a drunk, ex-con, who awakes one morning in a shop doorway after a drinking binge which has left him with no recollection of the previous days and wearing another man’s shoes. Following a fight, he ends up back in jail and on coming to, discovers that as well as the usual cuts and bruises from the scrap he’s also gone blind. The story follows him through his shambolic, drunken attempts to get through his life, and his subsequent brushes with both the police and the bureaucracy of local government. Throughout the novel, it’s the internal dialogue which Sammy has with himself, that was the strength of the book for me – for it reveals that while Sammy may be a Glasgow drunk, he is also a man with hopes and fears and frustrations just like anyone else. The monologues are literally and metaphorically dark. Some describe Sammy trying to come to terms with his loss of sight and others his reactions to the who, why and what of everything going on around him. And it does that right from the beginning when Sammy awakes after his drinking binge.
” Ye wake in a corner and stay there hoping yer body will disappear, the thoughts smothering ye; these thoughts; but ye want to remember and face up to things, just something keeps you from doing it, why can ye no do it;the words filling yer head; then the other words; there’s something wrong; there’s something far far wrong; ye’re no a good man; ye’re just no a good man”
It’s both tragic and magnificent in the same breath. What elevates this novel above any accusation of gimmicking in its use of Glasgow dialect, or it’s controversial use of four thousand “fucks”, is the humanity of it – James Kelman looked at a man like Sammy and tried to explain him from the inside out. It’s this depiction of Sammy as a human being that makes the book worthwhile. Too often in literature the “Sammy’s” of this world are background – this novel brought them into the spotlight.
There have been many novels in Glasgow and Scottish dialect since, and while I’ve enjoyed many, I’ve not yet read one that comes close to matching “How Late It Was, How Late!” If you’ve not read the book, I’d thoroughly recommend that you give it a try and don’t be put off by those “Glasgow-looking” words on the page – the secret is when in doubt, read it out – aloud! Nine times out of ten, you’ll get it! And there won’t be a Scottish to English sub-title in sight!