Divided by Language

Last night, my son and I watched Collateral on DVD. He had seen it in Glasgow, and persuaded me to watch it with him. It's watchable, reasonably entertaining, and I enjoyed it, but about half way through, I began to wonder if the current heatwave here in the west of Scotland had addled my brain. I could only understand about one word in three. It was like hearing something in a foreign language, of which you have a very basic working knowledge - you get the jist of what's being said, more or less, but miss all the nuances. And sometimes you listen to whole exchanges and think 'Well that went right over my head.'
I said as much to my son. 'Thank God' he said. 'I thought I was going daft. Or deaf.' And he's only nineteen. A quick poll of friends and relatives of all ages reveals that this is a problem for most of them, with all kinds of TV programmes as well as films. CSI is a particular culprit. 'I kept turning up the TV' said my sister in law. 'I thought it was something to do with the sound levels. But it isn't. I only get about half of what they say.'
Languages are organic. They change all the time. You only have to listen to radio broadcasts from the forties and fifties to hear just how far we have come in fifty years. But now, American English and British English are beginning to diverge so much, that very soon, we will need subtitles. I gather that the Americans already do this for regional British TV programmes. If vast swathes of the audience are not going to give up the unequal struggle for comprehension, they ought to start considering the same aid to understanding over here.

Gaaah as Bridget Jones Says

Just when I thought it was safe to come out of the garrett I got an email from the production editor of my Gigha book, telling me that it is about 30 pages short of the required 300. There is an index and lots of wonderful old pictures to come, but can we also find some more material for the appendices? Actually, there is a piece of place name research from the 1940s which I had drawn on quite heavily. I had acknowledged it very fully, but wanted to include the whole thing as an appendix, since it is out of print, hard to obtain but very useful for future place name researchers. It might do very well. We'll see.
I found myself wondering what makes me so uncharacteristically prickly about this process. Why? Why? As Bridget also says. Then I had a flash of insight, mainly due to the fact that I have been simultaneously working on a dramatisation of one of my own stage plays, for BBC radio. Whenever the director phones me about it, she seems to take the opportunity to tell me how much she likes it. Now I'm not expecting unadulterated praise from my publisher, but don't they know how paranoid authors can become? Why has nobody, so far, uttered the words 'Nice work Catherine.'
Why? Why?

The Proof of the Pudding....

The proofs of my book, God's Islanders, (to be published by Birlinn, in October) arrived a couple of days ago. Not only do I now have to go through them with a fine tooth comb, looking for the few typos and infelicities that 'got away' from the editor (not many, he did a fine job) but it is my very last chance to check several minor matters of fact which have been niggling at me, but which - inexplicably - I never got round to doing in the original manuscript version. God's Islanders is a work of non-fiction. But when you are dealing with a large mass of information (and the occasional wild speculation) there will always be some queries that you mentally file away to be checked later on. In the weeks before manuscript submission (usually, in my case, to a panic inducing deadline) there will be a multitude of last minute changes, and revisions, as well as the vagaries of footnote software, the fact that you didn't keep as many accurate records as you should have done and therefore have to spend several frustrating days looking things up again just to be sure, the printer that inexplicably presents you with an error message in mid manuscript, the cartridge that was full but is now empty, and the replacement cartridge that doesn't want to work...(I submit manuscripts online, but tend to send a printout as well, and ALWAYS keep a printout for myself, because like most writers I am completely paranoid about the innate malevolence of technology..) anyway, when you have dealt with all this, there will always be the odd unchecked piece of information or quotation which now needs to be dealt with.
Added to this, is that sad fact that I am not so frequently published that proof reading is second nature to me. The arrival of the proofs, when suddenly your manuscript begins to look like a real book (and you realise incidentally, just how many pages you have written!) is always exciting, but excitement is quickly followed by the realisation that you need to dig out the Writers and Artists Year Book and famliarise yourself with the symbols all over again, as well as finding the answer to those few final elusive questions. Happy days.

Library Vandalism

Somebody was telling me today how her university library has frequent 'clear-outs' of old books. Occasionally there are library sales, but most of the time, so she tells me, the books are simply dumped in skips, and sent off to be pulped, or finish up as landfill. I am more shocked that I can say.
She tells me that this doesn't just involve outdated textbooks. Old (and possibly valuable) hardbacks of the classics are often cleared out to make way for glossy paperbacks, which are thought to be more enticing to students. Similarly, old history books, including highly collectable statistical accounts are treated in the same cavalier fashion.
At this point in our conversation, I found myself having to snap my severely dropped jaw back into place. At what point does an 'outdated historical account' fit only for the skip, become a valuable old text, giving the student a snapshop of a particular place and time? When I was writing my book about Gigha, I found myself relying heavily on just such an old history of the archaeology of the island, researched and written in the 1930s, by a visiting clergyman. Of course most of the archaeological theory was out of date but it was the accurate observations of a large number of sites, that were invaluable for me. They came complete with detailed measurements, and descriptions of places that have changed drastically over the succeeding years. Armed with my little book, I could walk the island making comparisons. And yet this is exactly the sort of volume that has probably been jettisoned from various libraries to make room for glossy popular paperbacks. It is, so I'm told, a question of space. But shouldn't it also be a question of informed choice? A swift glance at a site such as Abebooks should show librarians the market value of some of these volumes, never mind their value as reference works. Charities such as Oxfam have quickly cottoned on. Yet so many of our academic institutions appear blissfully unaware of just how many babies are being ditched with this particular vat of bathwater. Such destruction is iniquitous, and if they don't want the books, they should at least be giving the general public the chance to acquire them.

The Price of a Fish Supper

I'm in the middle of adapting one of my own stage plays - The Price of A Fish Supper - for BBC Radio 4, afternoon theatre. It's proving unexpectedly tricky. The original play is a 50 - 55 minute monologue that was first performed at the Oran Mor in Glasgow. It's set here in the west of Scotland and it's about an ex-fisherman, his life story, and his eventual coming to terms with his tragic past. It's also a play about the death of a traditional industry and the effect of this on a whole community- what Joyce Macmillan, in reviewing the original play, called the 'gentrification and heritage industry packaging of such a history of hard work, pain and tragedy.' Monologue it may have been, but the original play, though simply set, was very visual. And as Rab, actor Paul Morrow put in a performance of raw intensity.
I have been very resistant to changing the form of the play too much. In the original, Rab tells his own story, so we see and hear everything through the filter of his life-battered consciousness. I've been very anxious not to lose that, by introducing odds and ends of dialogue. Too much radio drama these days seems to consist of long passages of narration, interspersed with infrequent snatches of drama as though the playwright hadn't quite got the hang of what it means to 'dramatise' something. You know - show, don't tell! But of course the entire form of Fish Supper consisted of somebody telling - that was essentially what the play was about - a solitary man, opening up, drawing the audience into his world. I think I quite consciously referenced the ancient mariner, with the audience in the role of listeners. And certainly Rab has been alone on a wide wide sea.
One other 'challenge' concerns the swear words. As an ex fisherman, Rab does rather litter his conversations with the F word. Which is a non-starter for afternoon theatre. But he's never going to go round saying oh dearie, dearie me.... Solutions will have to be found, perhaps simply omitting the swear words altogether, rather than seeking less intense substitutes.
I soldier on. It's interesting work, but as I said, surprisingly tricky.