The whole race of unreal people

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.

Lorna Sage - Bad Blood memoir book coverAs 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.

15 Responses to The whole race of unreal people

  1. Harry Lake says:

    I have no wish to pick nits, but, as you’d expect from anyone who starts a sentence like that, I’m going to anyway. (It is also possible I’m wrong.) When the author writes ‘a mocking set of blank pages left over by careless binders’, I feel she is blaming the wrong people: surely it is the typesetter/compositor/printer who lays out the text so that it fits the available space?

    • Stan Carey says:

      It gave me pause too, but I don’t think she’s blaming the binders in her capacity as author so much as reporting the reaction of her teenage self, with that self’s lesser understanding of book publishing.

      I hope you were able to enjoy some of her writing in spite of it all.

  2. John Cowan says:

    It depends on how it is bound. If it was a perfect-bound paperback, it would be easy to misbind it with a blank signature instead of the proper final signature.

  3. Those are wonderful passages—Thank you—As ever, I just find that any writing from the UK is clear & potent, and almost brisk, while Americans—like me—meander, overexplain, sound weak & pretentious—or demanding & pretentious.
    It almost always applies–and I’ve been reading British authors from the time I could read (yet somehow not absorbing style)–which just makes me wonder how much it has to do with the centuries over which people there made the language so familiar and workable, came to understand each other quickly, and now don’t wade in with unease, and do find their rhythms so naturally.
    —-And apparently appreciate all the possibilities, variations, and music of it.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Hmm, I don’t know. I’ve seen overbaked prose from British authors too – and from Irish ones and others – as well as ‘clear and potent’ writing from American authors. If there are such distinct patterns of style, I haven’t noticed them at the level of country of origin, at least not enough to draw such sharp boundaries.

  4. Oh wow, it’s not just me then! I mean that bit at the end – I had a similar traumatic experience, not due to blank pages but due to a whole load of extra stuff at the end of a book – you know how sometimes they add background about the author, suggested questions for discussion at a book club, even the first chapter of the next in the series…

    It happened to me once – reading a novel, thinking there was still plenty more in the story and then: wham, the end! so abruptly! Ever since then I check them before I start reading, and dog ear the page where the story really ends.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Sometimes a book ends sooner than I expect, whether due to blank pages or to supplementary material like you describe, but I don’t think I’ve ever been taken aback by it. I do remember the first time I read a book whose final pages offered a ‘teaser’ first chapter from a subsequent book. I read it, but then felt annoyed that I couldn’t continue with the new story. It didn’t make me go out and buy the next book (though I did read it eventually), but it was the last time I bothered reading those teaser chapters.

  5. Vinetta Bell says:

    Could it be that her teenage self intuitively knew that life does not end where Gone With the Wind or any text ends? I don’t know. However, she might have been expecting more from that story based on her then current knowledge of history and her imaginative expectation of fiction in general and that story in particular. By the way, Stan, you’ve piqued my curiosity by your opening statement. How is time against you these days? Please ignore my intrusive question, if I have overstepped boundaries. (Maybe that’s the American brashness in me. However, I’m concerned because I care.) Thanks!

    • Stan Carey says:

      Maybe she just wanted a happy ending. :-) Thanks for your concern and thoughtfulness, Vinetta; I just mean that work and life commitments have cut into my available blogging time. I have lots of posts planned or half-written but not enough free time to attend to them at the moment.

  6. David L says:

    I read Bad Blood years ago — it’s a pretty old book, I think — and although I remember finding it engrossing I couldn’t have told you much about it. Sage was a regular fiction reviewer at one of the Sunday papers, I believe, and I have a feeling that my younger self found her reviews a little harsh. Not that I knew anything about criticism, but she seemed a little mean-spirited at times about those poor books into which their authors had poured heart and soul.

    One other thing — if you’d asked me where Lorna Sage grew up, I would have said confidently it was a small village in Norfolk. Well, close enough, perhaps, what with rural folks and their funny ways.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Her Telegraph obituary says she was a regular reviewer for the Observer, LRB, NYT and TLS. If I ever read her criticism, I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that she was tough.

      Bad Blood was published in 2000; my copy is a 2001 paperback. I wouldn’t call that old, but it’s all relative: the book I finished before Sage’s came out in the 1920s (and I’d hesitate to call that old too!).

      • David L says:

        I just found my copy of the book and yes, it came out in 2000. For some reason I thought I had read it many years before that. Now I just have to figure out what book was written much earlier by someone who grew up in Norfolk…

  7. wisewebwoman says:

    Thanks Stan for this take on Sage’s book. I feel compelled to source it now and read it. A woman after me own heart she is.


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