Wednesday 31 August 2016

Mongrels or Melting-Pot?

My friend Ella Burton posted on Facebook recently about this topic. Ella, if you’re reading this, do chip in.
I’d like to say first of all that I am very glad to be British or even English. There is much to be thankful for there. We have fantastic literature and drama and incredible tolerance for the most part. Others laugh at us sometimes for our pragmatism aka “stiff upper lip” but it has its uses.  

However, what exactly does it mean to be British?

Visitors from the mainland may have found it even trickier to get across the channel than the mountain and rivers I mentioned in my previous post. Maybe it was the challenge that made people all the more determined. So each time the island was invaded. There was no gentle Völkerwanderung and gradual exchange at the borders.   

Have any of you traced your ancestry back or had your DNA analysed? Are you more Saxon or Norman? Do you have some Viking in you? Or are you a Great Dane? Specifically, perhaps related to those from Jutland, the Juts. They came too. The Romans came and civilised us.  Well, at least they brought us sanitation and central heating. They went home again and we forgot about it. They disappeared. Or do you have true Angle blood? They had quite a bit of influence. It’s where we get the word English from.
The Romans’ language is interesting. Latin gradually died away apart from in the Catholic Church.  There is some irony there. The Romans gave up their gods and took on the Christian one. They left their language with the new religion.

There are some more interesting linguistic factors here:
·         William the Conqueror encouraged his men to speak English rather than the Norman French they normally spoke. He didn’t approve of the latter. Goodness knows what sort of English they learnt, though. Good old Anglo-Saxon?   
·         English is difficult to spell / read. Just look at this sequence of words if you don’t believe me: cow, cough, bough, bow. Spanish and German are much easier. What you see is what you get, more or less, with those languages. In English, spelling and pronunciation is determined by which base language the words came from. There were many base languages because there were many invasions.
·         English is not inflected. We use word order rather than inflections to convey meaning. German and Latin use inflections. This is in part because of the melting-pot effect. It is easy to pick up and teach vocabulary. You point at the horse, say the word “horse” and everybody gets it.  If there are several words for horse you probably pick the easiest to say or the nicest sounding. Then you agree on a common word order: Subject, verb, object. I ride the horse.    
·         English has no authority governing it. The Oxford English Dictionary attempts to record it accurately. Fowler advises us on usage. Grammar is important as it makes the language clear and gives it its backbone. This is true in any language. On the whole, though, English is allowed to develop freely. This is great because language aids thinking.  
·         Spanish and Welsh share the same intonation, several words, the stress on the penultimate syllable of a word, and almost all the same extra letters in the alphabets. The Spanish and Welsh “ll” sound very different but you make the same shape in your mouth. The tongue is further back for Welsh. Celts are believed to be fair-skinned people who migrated from Spain.  
Are we complete mongrels then? Or do we prefer to think we have been blended smoothly together in a great big melting pot? Either image works for me. Mongrels are often more robust than highly-bred pedigree dogs. Soups made from everything you can find in the pantry are delicious. Being British means already being a mixture of many other European nationalities.    

The melting pot has got bigger, fortunately not because of any further hostile invasions, but because of a legal right of citizens from other EU states and Commonwealth countries to come and live and work here and because we grant asylum to many people forced to leave their own countries in difficult circumstances.     
Interesting that Liverpool, London and Manchester are used to these people. The people there seem to like the melting pot effect. We should remember as well that those from other EU states and those given asylum, although they pay taxes and live in the UK, have no right to vote in general elections and referendums.  The old melting-pot populations of Manchester and Liverpool are predominantly white working class.

Makes you proud to live in Manchester, doesn’t it?

And maybe we’re so good at literature and drama and tolerance because we’ve blended in the pot. Long may it continue to cook.    

Saturday 27 August 2016

Rivers and mountains, the World Showcase, and the keepers of the Old World

It must look odd to the rest of the first world. Every few hundred kilometres and as we cross the mountains or a river we change language and quite dramatically so. There are quite marked differences culturally, too.  Spectators from other continents might be forgiven for finding us a tad quaint or seeing us as some sort of museum like the World Showcase in Disney. Yet there are a few things we might like to consider.

The great landmasses of the Africas, the Americas and Australasia probably contain even more languages if we look to the indigenous population. Great distances as well as the rivers and mountains separate them linguistically. The English speakers came later. The comparatively fewer varieties of language within Europe suggest that people there did travel and connect more.   

Though many South American countries speak Spanish, it is a different Spanish in each one. A word that is quite polite in one country may be quite rude in another. Even in modern South America, then, language is diverse.     

Within Europe there are some surprises though. The purest French and the easiest to understand is spoken in the Alps. Swiss German sounds like German spoken with a Welsh accent. Is it the effect of the mountains that make the voice lilt? The people who live on the Alps are more like each other than their compatriots.   

The Basque country covers the Pyrenees and a bit of the coast in both France and Spain.  The Basques have their own language and their own games. They are physically a little different from other Europeans.

In Switzerland three languages are spoken. In Belgium there are two. Those who speak Flemish will not listen to French and visa versa.

And look at the Old World culture: Shakespeare, Dickens, Sartre, Molière, Zola, Balzac, Flaubert, Schiller, Goethe, Brecht, Handel, Mozart, Chopin, Georges Sand, Lorca, Bizet, Vaughan Williams, the British rock scene, Dante, Milton, Sartre, Böll. All those ancient stories about the King Arthur arose at the same time in French and English and are a basis for European culture.

Yes, the native people on the other continents hold some ancient wisdom but there seems to be a gap between this and the 21st century people. In Europe the wisdom has continued to bubble through and has been the basis for culture in the modern worlds on the other continents.  Sure, we’ve produced a few wrong ‘uns. I won’t name them here – you know who they are. Some terribly cruel things have happened, too.  But there’s far more wholesomeness than rot come out of this continent and it’s fascinating off-shore island.     

I guess we’ll always be the fascinating off-shore, island, and we’ll keep a bit of the mystique forever, but do we really not want to be part of this vibrant and diverse culture? Sure, I know, you don’t need to have a trade agreement with Austria in order to be able listen to Mozart. It can however, be a heck of lot easier to get to a live concert in Salzburg under current arrangements than the ones we had in 1972. Apart from which, it’s the EU that 52% of voters (37% of the population?) in the 2016 referendum voted to leave, not the EFTA agreement, or the Common Market, not the EEC or the EC. The EU is about more than trade.                                      

Wednesday 24 August 2016

Under Milk Wood – au bois lacté

Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood has a particular atmosphere that it is not easy to translate into another language. How should you say “limping invisible down to the sloeback, slow, crowblack fishingboating sea,” in French?  Or “The boys are dreaming wicked or of the bucking ranches of the night and the jollyrodgered sea.” Even more challenging maybe would be “In Butcher Beynon’s Gossamer Beynon, daughter, schoolteacher, dreaming deep, daintily ferrets under a fluttering hummock of chicken’s feathers in a slaughterhouse that has chintz curtains and a three-pieced suite, and finds, with no surprise, a small rough ready man with a bushy tail winking in paper carrier”. 

Dylan Thomas's Writing Shed Milk Wood?

The main point is you probably can’t translate it accurately so you don’t. Except that in 1972 a French theatre company did translate it into French and performed it as a play at the Maison de la Culture in Rennes. What was lost in translation was made up for in the acting. There was totally in this piece the atmosphere of Thomas’s sleepy, intensely populated little village with all its secrets staring out at us. It may have helped that we were in Rennes, the capital of Brittany. Welsh and Breton is very similar when spoken. Chances are the people are similar too – especially the ones who live in small towns or big villages.
At any performance the audience contributes Who was the audience? It was made up of academics, scholars of English literature and language students. Yes, I was in that audience.
There were ten of us. Four French students who studied English and German.  Four English students studying French and German and two German students studying English and French. We were all fluent in each others' languages.

We watched the play, we ate together afterwards, we drank read wine and we discussed Dylan Thomas into the early hours. We spoke French. After all, we were in France. Just occasionally we would stumble and then we could speak in our own language. The others would understand. And sometimes only one of those three languages could quite accurately express exactly what we wanted to say. We had a real tool to play with there. 

Oh, and the Maison de la Culture, by the way?  Yes, a great initiative by André Gide, the novelist, when he was minister for culture under De Gaulle’s government. De Gaulle, remember, was the big guy who constantly refused to have us in the Common Market. We’re throwing that privilege away?!  Gide created buildings that housed a theatre, other small performance spaces, a music library, a book library, coffee bars and bars where creative practitioners and their audiences could meet. No longer did people need to dress up to go to  theatres and now it was affordable for the lower earners including students.  Our own Everyman Theatre (Liverpool) is a little like this. My Creative Café Project was inspired by the Maison de La Culture. Our theatres have come on as well, though they’re not quite as friendly as the Maisons de la Culture were. It’s important that we learn from each other.

Yes, I hear you. This is fine for the rich. But I‘m not rich. I was born working-class and am arguably middle class now but not rich. However, I did this on a student grant. Okay, now it’s a loan but students get their fees waived if they do two semesters on an exchange and help anyway even for one semester. The money? EU money. Yes, we’ve paid it in but it comes back bigger. Two or more heads are better than one. The whole is bigger than the sum of its parts.

When we went to see Au Bois Lacté, ten heads and three languages were better than one. I guess also the writer in me was looking at how Thomas was achieving his effects and the adaption, including the translation, was fascinating.                          

Saturday 20 August 2016

Strangers are friends you’ve not met yet

The doorbell rings. The courier stands there, scratching his head, staring at the number on the  door. Yes it is a bit strange. We are number 15. To my left is number 17 and to my right is number 11. We should be number 13. Is this an English thing? Or a British thing? Does it happen elsewhere in Europe? This is the second time we’ve lived in a house that should be number 13.
“Can you take this for next door?” the man asks.
“Of course,” I say.
He mumbles as he fills in the details on his iPad. “Number thirteen?”
“Fifteen,” I say.
He frowns again. “You’ll have to excuse me,” he says. “My English isn’t very good.”
It is 26 June 2016. I wonder what he must be thinking. I feel sorry for him. He probably wonders what I’m thinking. Yes actually, even I can be impatient if people can’t speak English properly. However, there is another side to this. I taught languages for over 23 years and I find it incredibly rude when people make no effort to speak the language of the country they’re visiting. It’s usually in other countries that I get irritated and actually with my compatriots.    
Today, though, I’m not irritated.
We have had a horrible racist incident on one of our trams. I’m pleased to say that everybody rallied and condemned what was going on. Presumably as I’m talking about Manchester at least 40% of the people on the vehicle must have been Brexit.  More if you listen to the assumptions about which type of people travel by which means. Who knows? Yet they came to the defence of the man who was being hassled. British values are still upheld then.  
I look at the man in front of me and assume he’s Commonwealth. He is dark-skinned and has small features. He is slim and young. I expect a lot of people think they have just voted to have people like him sent home but in fact by voting to keep EU citizens out they’re probably making way for more Commonwealth members.  
“Where are you from, then?” I ask as I sign the iPad.
“Germany,” he says. “Originally from Pakistan.”  Ah. Double whammy?  
 The courier firm is German. He’s been sent to the UK to train some others but is covering for a sick colleague today.
“Prima,” I say. We carry on our conversation in German. I manage to reassure him that most of the people he’ll meet will be decent and tolerant and won’t take it out on him personally. Most won’t. There may be a few.
I think I’ve made a new friend. The stranger I hadn’t met at the beginning of the day.                    

Wednesday 17 August 2016

How it all began

Year abroad



1972 – 1973 was the third year of my BA Dual Hons French and German at the University of Sheffield, which actually meant a year abroad half in France, half in Germany. So, I enrolled at the universities of Rennes and Stuttgart. 


Stranger on the shore

France was tricky. I had to enrol with the police before I could enrol with the university. The police wouldn’t let me enrol with them until I was registered at the university. So, there were a lot of temporary forms and treks across town.   
“It’s a pity you English don’t come into Europe. You would avoid all of this fuss then,” said the friendliest of the officials I had to deal with.
Er, excuse me.  We’re coming in in January. Sort of.
Sure enough late January I received a letter from the police. My residential permit was ready. Only, I wouldn’t need it because now the UK was part of Europe. Cheers. I left France anyway at the end of February. 
A fellow student felt ill and took advantage of a free medical for all students just before Christmas. There was some concern and she was referred to other doctors. She almost blew her travel insurance to establish that she had meningitis and she had to be flown back to the UK. No EHIC in those days.     

At home in Germany

Germany was much easier. All foreigners even from other Common Market countries had to have a chest X-Ray. There was a worry about TB. People from Common Market Countries didn’t have to pay nor did we have to a make an appointment or queue. I arrived at the centre and was ushered like royalty to the front.
When I looked for accommodation later and the elderly sisters from whom I wanted to rent a room picked up a foreign accent they hesitated. “Where are you from?” they asked tentatively.   
“England,” I replied.
They sighed with relief. “So you are a real European,” they said. “You are most welcome.”         

More than an economic agreement

Yes it all started then in many other ways as well.
I’d had a good upbringing in languages anyway. From the bubble gum cards that taught you a few words to begin with, through O-levels and actually starting my German A-Level before I  took my O-level to working in small groups in A-levels. By the time I went to Sheffield I was fluent and widely read in both languages. I was passionate about them.

However, it all went up to another level when I actually went to live in those countries. I began to see a different point of view and I found different ways of doing things.
In France they put all of the foreigners together. It was kindly meant but it caused us to speak creolised French. So, I joined a choir, started playing basketball and learnt Breton.  In Germany I was pushed more into the thick of it and shared an apartment with a German girl. I joined a chess club and swam a lot.
I can no longer distinguish what I learnt then or what I’ve learnt since. Four spring to mind now. 

1.      They’re apologising for the tram running two minutes late and it’s snowing this heavily (That was definitely Stuttgart, March 1973).
2.      They allow students to go up to the next level even if they haven’t passed the year? (Most school systems except the British insist on student passing the year before that go up to the next one)   
3.      Two four course meal a day. What’s not to love? (France- even at the university restaurant – and yes, French families do manage it)
4.      They have the heating on all the time? Well, if it’s cold it’s cold. Doesn’t it actually cost as much to keep having it go on and off? What do you think the thermostat’s for? (Yes it’s a peculiar British habit, this having the heating coming on twice a day. When our children were very small we went “continental” and had it on day and night.  The bills were no different.  We only have it off at night in our current house because it gets too hot when we’re in bed.)                                    

 More come to mind as I write. I’m not saying here that the European way is the better, just that it’s an alternative and some of it rubbed off on me. That is the point of all exchange, of all connection isn’t it?

When I came back to the UK, the UK had moved on too.. I was no longer only British.   

I still have the friends  I made back then.