In this guest post, Helen Taylor muses on the gritty details of representing Glaswegian dialect in her novel about Caravaggio’s mysterious re-appearance in this most unlikely of places. The Backstreets of Purgatory is currently crowdfunding at Unbound, where you can make a pledge to help her publish it.
If you are going to set a novel in a city with such a force of character, with such a fierce sense of identity and local pride as Glasgow has, even if it is a fictionalised version of the place, you want it to feel, look, smell, sound like the real thing. At least, I do. Otherwise, it feels like a wasted opportunity to celebrate the qualities that make a place unique. Of course, I could have set my own novel in any town or city, even an invented one, but for The Backstreets of Purgatory I’m sure it wouldn’t have worked nearly as well. At the heart of Backstreets lies the incongruity of Caravaggio’s presence in the city. Perhaps it was a subconscious strategy on my part or perhaps simply fortuitous but the very nature of Glasgow echoes many of the themes that underlie my tale. Caravaggio—an artist with a reputation for being a hard man, his reputation at odds with his artistic sensibility and his desperation for recognition by the Catholic Church—arriving in Glasgow, a city with much the same reputation and its own set of conflicting idiosyncrasies.
Finn, the main protagonist of Backstreets, sums it up like this:
Whatever its inglorious past, (Finn) felt a strong allegiance to his adopted home town. It hid its compassionate side behind the myth of hard men, cheap alcohol, and the splendour of squalor and violence.
And as much as the dark gothic spires of the University and the red sandstone glow of tenements, the tower blocks and the grand Victorian villas, the rivers with the snow-capped, heather-stained hills beyond, and the rain and cloud and occasional ‘taps aff’ days of sunshine can conjure the atmosphere of the city, for me it is the language itself which gives Glasgow its particular, peculiar personality—the accents, the dialect, the swear words and endearments (often one and the same) and the sort of bizarre and hilarious phrases that only your granny would say.
Glasgow was my choice, in part because of my familiarity and fondness for the city, but the importance of language anchoring a piece of writing in a particular place applies to a greater or lesser extent to whatever setting you choose.
Let’s think for a moment about how to do justice to the richness of the language which marks a place. First things first. You know your characters, you know where they were born and where they live, you know their motivations, their hidden secrets, their embarrassing tics, the shade of hair dye they use (and I’m not just talking the women here). You know who they are sleeping with and who they wish they were sleeping with. You know what number bus they take to work and who they are going to meet in the pub later. You know whose shoes are nipping their toes, whose belt is getting looser, whose hearing aid batteries are flat. And now you are listening in on their conversations and it’s up to you to record what you hear.
It is always a tricky moment. Misrepresenting dialogue is surely one of the quickest ways to turn off a reader. But authentic doesn’t mean painfully accurate. Imagine how tedious and mundane a conversation recorded in real time would be, with all the ums and the ers and the half sentences, the stutters and the restarts. So as a writer, you edit, pick the bits that develop the tension or unconsciously reveal important truths, the good one-liners or the parts that hint at undercurrents beneath the trivialities.
If the language is strongly accented or in a pronounced dialect, the task automatically becomes more challenging. Should your eaves-dropped conversation be written phonetically, or as a watered-down version of what you heard, or written in standard English even if that wasn’t what was being spoken?
These were the types of questions I was continually asking as I tied myself in knots in early drafts of Backstreets, very aware of my own fairly neutral accent and overly sensitive to the politics surrounding the language and dialects of Scotland: Standard English with an accent; Scots English with its own terms and pronunciations; Scots itself as a recognised minority language with its various regional variations. And what about spelling? By tradition Scots is an oral language and although there are plenty of written works to consult and several Scots dictionaries, for the moment there is still no standard written form.
Funnily enough, there are words in my vocabulary that until recently I had no idea were specifically Scottish, often words with no precise English equivalent, where no single English word that can provide quite the same nuance or convey that particular rhythm or tone to speech. Like shoogle. Wobble slightly (if you’re talking a shoogly chair for example) or shake gently (if you’re talking waking someone up by shoogling their shoulder) although neither definition sounds quite adequate to my ears. And is it shoogle or shuggle? Is the long ‘oo’ sound in the middle a reflection of its central two ‘o’s or because it is the long Scottish ‘oo’ pronunciation of a ‘u’?
For me, the answer was to go for a spelling and stick with it, relying on context for readers who were unfamiliar with a particular word or phrase to determine the meaning. Where there was a direct English equivalent, however, it was a different matter. Wiz I gonnae go fae aw they Scots spellins or no? Wiz or wuz? Gonnae, gonny or gauny? I was haunted by the worry of coming across as unintentionally comic or, worse, of taking the Mick. Not that Backstreets is short of humour, but I wanted the humour to be controlled and not an incontinent discharge of cheap laughs like a Glaswegian equivalent of ‘Allo ‘Allo.
Of course, dialect doesn’t only serve to place the action in a particular setting. Language, character and place are inextricably linked. Each character in Backstreets has a slightly different accent—more or less pronounced—and they modulate the way they speak depending on the situation. Finn, who is by upbringing a well-spoken, middle-class boy from Perthshire, is on a constant mission to demonstrate his ‘street’ credentials and deliberately roughens his accent to impress. In contrast, Lizzi, his girlfriend, born and bred Glaswegian, was brought up to speak what her mother describes as ‘properly’—a version of Standard English with a mild accent—and as a consequence suffers alienation from her working-class roots. Esme Blythe, an English psychiatrist, has adapted some of her phrases to a Glaswegian syntax to make herself more approachable her patients but, in a crafty reversal of the balance of power, ex-addict Tuesday McLaughlin tones down her accent and her foul language in Esme’s presence in a way that can only be described as crushingly patronising.
All the considerations of these different voices were made significantly more complicated when I chose to write in the third person point of view, and from several different characters’ perspectives. Personally, I find there are loads of advantages in using the third person but, when the writing is loaded with dialect, a consistent voice—relatively straightforward to achieve with the first person—is harder to pull off. With the very close third person, you are practically inside someone’s head, sometimes reading their thoughts as if they were narrating the story themselves. It seems logical to use the same dialect for their thoughts as for their speech. The problem comes when you move between this extreme close-up to an almost neutral onlooking narrator because, as the ‘camera’ effectively pans in and out, there are varying degrees of closeness or distance. Here, it isn’t always clear where the dialect should end and English begin.
So, I had some complex decisions to make. How best to portray the spectrum of accents and dialects, how to move seamlessly between the neutral narrator and the very close third person with all the possible distances between, how to balance the desire for authenticity against the danger of jolting readers from the fictional world of Backstreets if they have to pause to decipher non-standard spellings or unfamiliar vocabulary or simply because the language sounds fake.
Many of my favourite authors write fiction set in Scotland or with Scottish protagonists—James Robertson, Iain Banks, James Kelman, Jackie Kay, Magnus Mills, Kate Atkinson to name a few—and many of them take a similar approach, using standard English with a scattering of local vocabulary. It is the rhythm and tone, the syntax and the colloquialisms, which give the language the sense of place, and the phonetic approach to dialect is used only sparingly and smoothly, so as a reader you don’t jar against idiomatic spelling or flocks of apostrophes. But there are others ways to achieve this seamlessness. Trainspotting and Buddha Da are examples of novels written entirely in Scots which, once your eye or ear has adapted, pull you in to their fictional world (not least because of the consistency of the language) and, I would hazard (given the success of Trainspotting), regardless of whether or not you are already familiar with Scots.
It took several major rewrites of Backstreets to find the solution which allowed me to do all the things I wanted, i.e. to write in a tone that was unmistakably Glaswegian, and overcome the technical aspects, without excluding my non-Scottish audience or jolting my readers out of the story. I’ll leave it to them to let me know if I have been successful, although the enthusiastic reception I’ve had at my public readings to date suggests that these audiences at least have liked what they heard. In the end, the rhythms of speech, the banter, the insults, the humour are as important to the voices of my characters as the specific pronunciation of each word. The patter as vital to the sense of place as the pubs and swing parks of my fictional West End.
Take Tuesday McLaughlin’s reaction to Rob offering her his arm:
‘If you don’t mind me saying, doll, that’s not fucking normal.’
Let’s be honest, where else would a guy, six foot four and built like a brick shit house, shaved head and tats on his face, be referred to as doll?
About Helen Murray Taylor
Half English, half Scottish, Helen was brought up on the edges of the Lake District and in the North East of Scotland and since then has lived in several other regions of both countries. For many years, she studied and worked in Glasgow, most recently as a Research Fellow at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Molecular Parasitology at the University of Glasgow, but now lives in France. As a result, her own accent is all over the place. Along with her medical qualifications and a doctorate from the University of Oxford, she holds a Diploma in Creative Writing from the Open University and an MA in Creative Writing from Lancaster University. Her poems and short stories have been published in the online Open Mouse section of Poetry Scotland, Product Magazine and the sadly defunct Ranfurly Review. Her first novel The Backstreets of Purgatory has been taken by Unbound. You can make a pledge to help her publish The Backstreets of Purgatory here: https://unbound.com/books/the-backstreets-of-purgatory
Tenements by Ruth Taylor. Reproduced with permission from the photographer.
Bums on Pub Stools by Ruth Taylor. Reproduced with permission from the photographer.