Time is against me these days, but I want to share a few passages of linguistic interest from Lorna Sage’s remarkable memoir Bad Blood. Sage, who was a professor of English and a literary critic, grew up in a village called Hanmer in north Wales. This first excerpt, which considers the local dialect, follows a note on Thomas Hardy:
Hanmer wasn’t on his [Hardy’s] patch, of course, but you could picture the Maelor district as a mini-Wessex, less English, less fertile, lacking a writer to describe it. The local dialect did make a lot of the syllable ‘Ur’ that he singles out in Tess to stand for the ancient burr you can hear in country voices. In Hanmer grammar ‘Ur’ or ‘’Er’ was the all-purpose pronoun used for men, women, children, cattle, tractors. It implied a kind of levelling, as though all were objects, and you could use it for a tree or a stone, too. In my memory it’s always associated with negatives – ‘dunna’, ‘conna’, ‘wunna’. You kick a gate that’s warped half off its hinge: ‘’Er wunna open,’ you say without surprise. Everything had its own sullen, passive power of resistance.
As a child and teenager Sage was a bookworm who thrilled to stay up all night reading when she could. When her mother began acting with a local theatre group of the Women’s Institute, Sage was appalled – not just out of a child’s embarrassment but from a sense that it was in some way an intrinsically improper way to treat words:
I sang ‘Jerusalem’ silently and inwardly, taking its words away from the WI, wiping off the throaty voices, putting the letters back in the book on its shelf in the library in my head. Another great offence involved in acting was that it turned words into so much breath and spittle, and made them mix in company, whereas I wanted to savour them in solitude. When we built Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land it would be, so far as I was concerned, a city of separate towers where you could retreat to commune in private, probably at night, with imaginary friends who’d step out from between the covers. Impersonating characters on the stage was a cruel assault on the whole race of unreal people.
Sage’s grandfather was a vicar who blacked out his books’ spines ‘as a precaution against would-be borrowers’. Her uncle spared his own books this fate but declared fiction ‘a waste of time’. These twin sources lead to an amusing revelation about storytelling and bookmaking:
Uncle Bill’s rejected collection of escapist classics looked and felt different from vicarage books. This was not only because you could read their spines, but also because he’d bought them in Canada, where he was stationed at the end of the war, and they exuded North American profligacy in their very bindings and their extravagant use of paper, at a time when English books were printed close and meanly. This difference was impressed on my sensibility for ever the night I finished Gone with the Wind, reading in bed, no one else awake: as I neared the end, speeding on, I could feel with my right thumb the reassuring thickness of the pages left to turn and knew there had to be a happy ending. And then – nothing! Just a mocking set of blank pages left over by careless binders. I cried and cried. After that, for years, I used to check automatically when I started a book what the end pages looked like. Uncle Bill introduced me to the material nature of culture without even knowing it.
Speaking of book spines, Bad Blood featured in a book spine poem here a couple of years ago. I’m glad I eventually got around to reading it.